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Chopper crew plumbs depths for riches

Thursday, 29th December, 2011

FLY-IN-FLY-OUT SURVEYORS: Pilot Sam Bolton-Riley (left) and Geotech field manager Leon Loveloch get to know the Broken Hill horizon and the depths below. FLY-IN-FLY-OUT SURVEYORS: Pilot Sam Bolton-Riley (left) and Geotech field manager Leon Loveloch get to know the Broken Hill horizon and the depths below.

By Paula Doran

It’s the perfect formula for an adventure, and the kind of random mining magic that makes a journalist’s day - all you need is a chopper, a tanker and a very large hoop, plus a dash of the ever-evolving technology - and you have a tale to tell. Cover me, I’m going in.

The Geotech helicopter has just returned for an early afternoon refuel and the BDT is lucky enough to be chopper-side to catch a glimpse of a little aero-techno-mining efficiency at its best.

While many of us in the mining climes of the world have a full to minor understanding of geological surveying, this Geotech mob brings on a whole new aspect.

If you’ve happened to spot the surveying chopper in the skies of the far west in the last week you’ll appreciate what a sight it is. 

If you’re in the mining industry and you’ve seen the kind of data it can provide, then you’ll be impressed on a different level by a more detailed collection of data. Mining companies like Perilya, who have brought the Geotech team to town, can work out precise, well-informed drilling programs rather than sending their drill rigs out blind.

Dating back to the 1940s when the technology behind this survey was used to detect war-time submarines below the murky depths, the jaw-dropping part of this story, is the loop - a massive circular attachment which is hung in sling-like fashion below the chopper to collect data from beneath red dirt and saltbush deep below.


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The pilots of the Geotech choppers do four flights a day in the manner of skyward crop dusters, up and down pre-set grid lines carrying the 35 metre diameter loop which through a complex technology works with electromagnetics to paint a picture of what’s below.

How best to describe the loop which is carried under the watchful gaze of pilot Sam Bolton-Riley is a tricky one. It’s a far from blokey analogy, I know, but the cone-like sling which connects down to a circular structure, which then joins a data processer, reminds me of an old-fashioned hooped skirt.

Male or female, techno-expert or otherwise, it’s a rare sight to see a chopper take off with a swinging technical apparatus underneath.

For the Geotech team travelling the world’s back paddocks with a chopper, a fuel tanker and an easy enthusiasm, it gives them a chance to use their skills in an intense and somewhat pressured situation, in some of the most laid-back environs in their country of flight.

But far from the glamour of holding a key part in a expert team, Bolton-Riley, a New Zealander, says it’s the bush jobs he enjoys most - setting up camp in the middle of nowhere. Broken Hill is almost a metropolis compared to some of the jobs this crew has been on.

“This sort of work is specialist work,” he says, pointing to the loop. Without ego, he explains that discipline is a big part of the job. “You can’t take your mind off the job. You’ve got to be constantly aware of ground clearance while you’re carrying the loop.  You’ve got to be aware of speed, height, and the weather. Wind gusts can affect the data you’re collecting.”

As the ground crew, including long-time Geotech field manager Leon “Bushie” Loveloch refuels, I learn that the surveying chopper travels at just 90 kilometres an hour on lines with a 100-250 metre gap between them.  

Despite the well-travelled team having surveyed across the country, they say they can’t access any of the information they’re collecting via the on-chopper computer.

“We could have just crossed the biggest gold deposit in the world, but we’d never know,” the team agrees.

As we walk across the tarmac and the sound of the chopper recedes,  Bushie’s mate, who up until now has been pretty cool in this boys’ own adventure, says, “This is what we’re here for,” and he throws up the memory stick he’s retrieved from the computer, ready to send one flight’s info through to the appropriate geo, scientist or boss so they can translate the information that a huge swinging hoop in the sky just collected for them, and let the drill rigs know where they need to go. Information is a time saver in this story!




IT’S IN THE LOOP: The loop makes for an incredible sight swinging below the Geotech chopper as it heads back out for another session of surveying.


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