I had the privilege of hiking with Ed Wright to watch the helicopter air supply to LeConte Lodge on Monday, March 17, 2008. It was Mr. Wright’s 1,306 hike.
The supplies were brought to the Luftee Overlook parking lot, about 3/4 mile past the Newfound Gap parking lot. Alan Householder, who also runs the llama train to the lodge, was overseeing the area and staying overnight to guard the supplies, most of which were covered with a tarp, but otherwise ready to go.

The weather forecast was favorable for the flight to commence on Monday and possibly continue Tuesday, if needed. A weather system was supposed to move in during the middle of the week that would make flying the helicopter impossible. Monday morning was mostly clear and cold, about 25º at the trailhead. Daylight was just breaking as I passed the Gatlinburg overlook, but it was still pretty dark at the trailhead at 7:20 AM. Daylight started to break in the deep woods as we walked along Alum Cave Creek. Recent rains and some melting snow have returned most of these areas to a full flow, although the regional drought is by no means over.

About ½ mile into the hike, it started getting lighter, and we could see sunshine starting to reach the highest ridges. It took us just about thirty minutes to hike the first mile to the first footlog bridge, and just a few minutes later we arrived at the Arch Rock. Just after crossing the fourth and final footlog bridge, at 8:18 AM, we saw the helicopter fly over on its way to the Luftee Overlook. After a short rest, we continued on to Alum Cave Bluff. We saw the helicopter making one of its runs to the top with supplies.

We reached Gracie’s Pulpit, the halfway point, at 9:42 AM. We continued to see and hear the Sikorsky helicopter shuttling supplies. About 800 or so feet past the Upper Steps is Lu’s Pulpit. There, the trail turns 90º and you begin to get some outstanding views of Clingman’s Dome. We reached the lodge and the temperature was 45º.

I went to the office porch to watch one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. A Sikorsky S-61N helicopter is used for the airlifts. It is operated by Construction Helicopters from Ypsilanti, Michigan. It has a twin turbo engine and can lift about 7,000 pounds and flies with two pilots, each of which have a bubble window they can peer out of to see where their load is hanging. The chopper is about 59 feet long, with a rotor diameter of about 62 feet. It can carry up to thirty passengers, and for this trip, landed near the lodge to drop of members of Construction Helicopters crew who assisted with the supply. Four pallets were suspended in cargo nets beneath the chopper with a long cable. The pilot would fly (apparently) roughly the same route the Boulevard Trail takes, crossing just north of High Top on his approach to the lodge. He would then maneuver the cargo and lower it between trees and cabins, placing it gently on the ground. The pilot was in contact with the ground crew through radio sets worn by some of them. He could drop a palette or two in one location, lift up, move a few yards, and place the others in front of another building. Long Straps hanging below the cargo nets allowed the ground crew to “fine tune” the deposit location. After dropping off new supplies, he would move the chopper to another location and pick up something to go off the mountain. Sometimes it was just trash or empty pallets, other times he would leave with as many as four propane tanks. After the helicopter left, those on the ground emptied the palettes. Some people formed a bucket brigade to move the new supplies into different buildings while others moved the cargo nets and empty pallets and readied them for another flight. Most of the non-perishable food, wine and t-shirts were brought up during the supply flights. I heard someone say that a total of three flights of four palettes each were required to bring up the t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other souvenir items to the lodge. By the time I left, the dining hall was almost completely full of boxes, all of which must be put away before the first guests arrive on March 26. I would assume most if not all the paid staff was working that day, but many of the visitors who hiked up to watch also pitched in.

After watching these activities for a couple of hours (and pitching in and helping some with the bucket brigade), I left for the hike down at 1:39 pm. The helicopter kept making flights, and it appeared that it was bringing up propane tanks. Alan had said the previous day that he thought the tanks were to go up on Tuesday, but the threat of weather may have caused them to move that up a day. Either way, the flights continued.

I arrived at the trailhead at 4:19 PM and drove down to the Gatlinburg bypass overlook to see if I could spot the helicopter still making flights. Sure enough, after just a few minutes, it appeared over Myrtle Point, hovered over the lodge, and turned and flew back out of sight. It was another spectacular hike to Mt. LeConte and it was an honor to meet and hike with Ed Wright.
Ron P. Metcalfe
Mosheim, Tennessee

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