As a child, Brad Maas would pedal his bike 21 miles from Minneapolis to the Rosemount airport just to wash and clean helicopters for free.
Today, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) pilot remains fascinated by the nimble flying machines, and even more by the sights he sees.
“Most of my is job is looking down on the fields, forests and wetlands of the state to help count wildlife,” Maas said. “It’s pretty cool. I’ve been on flights where bald eagles have been above me, below me and soaring right beside of me. I see things you don’t forget.”
Now a Baxter, Minn., resident, Maas enrolled in the U.S. Army’s “high school to flight school” program in 1970. The military was gung-ho to recruit pilots back then because the Vietnam War was raging. Maas saw the service as a speedy way to get the helicopter training he sought. “I soloed Oct. 4, 1971,” he recalled. “I was mildly terrified yet fairly confident.”
Maas has been flying ever since. He spent almost five years hauling cargo and troops for the Army. He gave tourist rides at the Paul Bunyan amusement park in Brainerd. He spent 28 years in the National Guard, including missions in Iraq. And he has been a part-time DNR pilot since 2000 and full time since 2014.
“I am very thankful,” said Maas, 66. “My job is the perfect culmination of my skills and interests. After the Army I earned a natural resources degree that led to a variety of DNR wildlife and fisheries technician jobs at the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area, Cold Spring, Windom and Montrose. To have my two passions — nature and flying — also be my work is pretty sweet.”
Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation:
On what he does
I spend about 70 percent of my time flying animal surveys for the Section of Wildlife. We do moose, deer and elk surveys in winter. When I am not doing animal surveys I am involved in search and rescue operations, aerial firefighting, photography, herbicide-spraying to eliminate unwanted hybrid cattail and other missions.
On counting wildlife
Wildlife biologists design the population surveys, and my job is to fly the routes. Population surveys are a three-person operation. One biologist sits in the front next to me. The second sits directly behind me. Both record what they see from their side of the helicopter, and I assist the person who sits behind me because they have less visibility. So, three sets of eyes are scanning the landscape on overlapping transects. A helicopter is better than a plane for certain surveys. A loafing wolf in the forest, for example, could care less about a plane passing over. However, when a helicopter comes in over the trees, they skedaddle ... and that’s when you can see them and count them.
On survey accuracy
It’s not as easy to spot an 800-pound moose as you’d imagine because if they don’t move they can be hard to see. In fact, we know we don’t see all moose and deer. That’s why wildlife staff have developed correction calculations to ensure population estimates are accurate. So, it’s true we don’t see every large animal, but population estimates reflect that reality.
On what’s fun
The sandhill crane survey in north central and northwestern Minnesota is perhaps the most fun because I fly low — about 30 feet above the ground — and slow at about 40 miles an hour. I fly back and forth over randomly designated wetland plots and look for birds, nests and eggs. Cranes can be anywhere. You’ll spot in them in wetlands, feeding in newly seeded soybean fields and even forest edges.
On scary situations
I’ve had two scary situations. One was an engine failure in 2013. I was on my way back to Brainerd after a wolf telemetry flight when my engine boomed and gray smoke flashed past. Not good. I immediately lowered the collective to put the blades at a flat pitch so they’d keep rotating, and I was fighting to get the nose back up, too. I was about 8 miles east of Emily — not an area of a lot of roads — but I found one and was able to turn and dive toward it by autorotating (a common safety maneuver). I slid about 90 feet on tar but landed safely. An investigation determined ice in the fuel line was the likely cause.
The other time was a year or so ago. I was flying from St. Cloud to Brainerd when it sounded like a bomb went off. Part of the windshield had exploded while traveling at 110 knots. Air whooshed through the hole and sent all of my charts and papers flying everywhere. I couldn’t see anything for a second or two. It was all so disorienting that my passenger and I dropped from 1,100 feet to 500 feet in no time. I managed to make safe landing, but that was quite the experience. The National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation. The cause was not 100 percent conclusive.
On the rewards of the job
Minnesotans love the outdoors and it’s rewarding to be part of that. To help put out a wildfire, to help search for a missing boater, to reduce amount of hybrid cattail that are choking so many small wetlands and lakes is all good work. After leaving the Army I had considered going into farming. It didn’t work out, and in retrospect I am glad it didn’t.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.