Helicopter business took off after rescues


Fifty years ago on the afternoon of Sept. 10, 1957, a two-hour rescue forever altered tiny Columbia Helicopters, Inc.

Columbia founder and pilot Wes Lematta had been using the firm's sole chopper to chauffeur U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspector Col. Jackson Graham to a number of projects that day, including a visit to a hopper dredge to deliver a safety award to its crew.

Flying back over the Coos Bay Channel a few hours later, he and Graham saw the dredge enveloped in water, its surviving crew clutching to posts and masts jutting from the choppy waves.

A fleet of small vessels already had embarked to rescue crew members of the William T. Rossell, but the harsh winds and swells made it nearly impossible for them to reach the craft.

"The wind was cold and the high winds blowing. I always remember their eyes were bloodshot because they were pretty cold," Lematta said. "Some of them wouldn't have lasted the night."

According to a U.S. Coast Guard report detailing the incident, dated Oct. 31, 1958, the Thorshall, a Norwegian freight vessel, and the Rossell were passing each other when the Thorshall suffered a steering gear failure.

"Before any preventive action could be taken by either vessel, she came left into the Rossell, colliding with her and penetrating her hull at nearly a 90-degree angle. ... After impact, the Thorshall backed out of the Rossell, which listed sharply to port and righted herself in about 30 feet of water with her superstructure awash in breaking seas."

Four men died in the collision, but most of the crew was in the mess hall eating dinner when the ship began to sink about five minutes later.

Dropping off Graham and another passenger on the North Jetty, Lematta returned to the ship. There, he hovered and tried to coax the frightened men into his aircraft. But they wouldn't do it.

"(Instead), they'd straddle the skid and I'd fly them to the shore," Lematta said.

Soon, the pilot noticed that his Hiller 12-B was running out of fuel. Rather than waste precious moments flying to the North Bend Airport where his youngest brother Jim, then 18, stood by with aviation fuel, Lematta headed for a nearby U.S. Coast Guard Lifeboat Station and filled up on gasoline.

Jim thought filling the helicopter with automobile gas was folly.

"That concerned me because I thought he would have engine problems," Jim said.

Luckily, for his brother and the men he saved, the gasoline worked.

Jim learned of the rescue from a phone call he received at the airport. He then went to the Coast Guard station to keep an eye on the action. While at the base, about three-fourths of a mile away, Jim's breath suddenly caught as he saw the helicopter swoop in low to rescue a man as a large wave broke into the helicopter.

"I could hear the rotors hitting the water. The rotor blades were slowing down. I thought it was going to knock him out of the sky," Jim said.

But Lematta pulled up and got out as quickly as possible, returning shortly with a rope harness to take the last of the men to shore. A Coast Guard coxswain, Myron G. Colburn Jr., also rescued four men. All of the crew members on the dredge were saved and taken to shore except for three who drowned and one man who suffered a heart attack shortly after he reached safety.

All in all, Lematta made about 18 trips to the ship and saved 15 sailors, said Columbia Helicopters spokesman Dan Sweet.

"At the time, it was the largest single-handed rescue by helicopter in U.S. history," Sweet said, adding that Jim broke his brother's record in 1968 when he saved 44 people from a fire in Alaska.

Soon after the rescue, the Lematta brothers realized it could mean a great deal for Columbia Helicopters.

"I guess we were all amazed with what was going on. It was happening so quickly," Jim said.

With newspaper articles in the Coos Bay Times, the Oregon Journal, The Oregonian, a photo in Life Magazine and medals for the roles Lematta and Graham played in the rescue, Columbia Helicopters quickly took on a new drive.

"In 1957 helicopters were still a relatively new industry. Wes used the rescue to promote the capabilities and versatility of helicopters," Sweet said. "He ... eventually acquired more, smaller helicopters and began flight training for the general public. Anyone who wanted to learn to fly could come. And they also sold helicopters, as well."

Lematta, who believed that helicopters could be used for construction, started taking on a number of construction projects following the rescue, Sweet said. But it was not until the mid-1960s that he began to buy helicopters with larger lifting capacities.

That's when he began doing more construction work, installing power line towers and fighting fires. In 1969, the company acquired four Vertol 107s, which gave it the ability to begin helicopter logging.

"We were the first successful helicopter logging business in the world. Others had tried, but they could never make it financially successful," Sweet said.

Through the years, Columbia also has assisted in salvaging and rescuing grounded vessels.

Now located at the Aurora State Airport south of Portland, Columbia employs about 850 people around the world and is working on projects in Ecuador, Peru, Papua New Guinea and Canada. It also uses an active fleet of 20 helicopters.

It all seems like pretty heavy lifting compared to the work Lematta used to do prior to the rescue. Those jobs included flying men dressed as Santa Claus and the Easter bunny for special appearances, lifting performers for aerial trapeze acts and towing water skiers from Portland to Astoria.

"He just did all sorts of things for promotion in the early days," Sweet said.

Lematta, who fought in World War II as an infantryman, said he learned to fly planes on the GI Bill after he got out of the service. But despite earning a commercial license, he was unable to find a job.

One day, while driving, Lematta said he heard someone was hiring helicopter pilots in the southeast, and began training. Soon after, he convinced his oldest brother, Eddie, to buy a helicopter so they could offer lessons.

Wes Lematta and his three brothers were all involved in the business in one way or another over the years, but only Wes, 81; and Jim, 68, who sits on the board of directors, remain.

Still sporting the neat crew cut and toothy grin he had in the 1950s, Lematta, the chairman of Columbia Helicopters, said he clearly remembers the rescue and the incredible impact it had on his life and fledgling business.

"It got quite a bit of notoriety. It just grew from the point to where we are. Helicopters were so unusual at that time," Lematta said "It's just fortunate that we were there that day.

"I just feel fortunate that I was able to save those lives."

Share This Story