Pilot Thomas Helms passes
By Pete DeMola, Times Union
The skies over Long Lake are quieter this week.
So are the basketball courts, where a group of players met for pickup games for decades.
In this tiny lakefront community, the game was almost a way of keeping time.
It was a gentleman’s game, Mike Farrell recalled this week.
“We needed to keep doing it on Sunday nights so the cows wouldn’t forget to come home,” Farrell said.
Now its long-term guardian, Thomas John Helms, is dead.
Farrell knew Helms, who died on June 23 at 76 following a short battle with acute myleloid leukemia, for nearly 50 years.
Helms was a well-known presence from both above and below.
Helms was the owner and operator of Helms Aero Service in Long Lake, spending almost 50 years taking academics, tourists, flying sightseers, hunters, and fishermen soaring over the Adirondack Mountains.
His home base was the crook in Route 30 near town beach, where the man and his planes were a common sight in Adirondack summers. Helms’ crafts were pontoon planes that were floating fixtures on the lake when he wasn’t flying passengers around the massive state park.
At times, his father helped. So did his son, Tom.
Helms was a member of the faculty and staff at St. Lawrence University in Canton in the early 1980s, and owned a small computer consulting firm in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to his obituary.
Dr. Russell Rider was also a member of the pickup squad. He said he only say his notoriously unemotional friend tear up once. It was during one of his flights.
At first, Helms thought he was gently piloting over a group of gliders.
But they were bald eagles.
“This tame and self-imposing person just broke down,” Rider recalled.
Helms — who preferred Tom — was born in Plattsburgh on April 27, 1946, to the late Herbert and Helen (Lane) Helms. He graduated from Long Lake Central School in 1963 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics from Clarkson University in Potsdam.
Helms served as a Russian linguist in the U.S. Army and earned the National Defense Service Medal, Sharpshooter Badge and the Good Conduct Medal prior to his honorable discharge from active duty on October 24, 1969.
He married the former Julia Sandiford on June 9, 1973, and they settled in Long Lake in 1977.
The basketball games lasted for 40 years.
“We were young men when we started and old men when we finished,” Farrell said.
Helms’ operations have long been critical for tours and scientific research, said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council.
Sheehan remembers Helms piloting him over acid-rain-polluted waters.
“They were clear as gin due to the lack of anything resembling green at the bottom,” Sheehan said,
Helms was a past member of the Friends of the Long Lake Library Board, the Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York’s Board of Directors, and the Long Lake Athletic Association Board.
He is survived by his wife and three sons: Thomas (Robin) Helms, Jr., of Arlington, Va., Andrew (Nicole) Helms of Arlington, Tenn.; and Timothy (Kate) Helms of Long Lake. He is also survived by two sisters, six grandchildren and several nieces, nephews and cousins.
A visitation was last Monday at St. Henry’s Parish Center in Long Lake. He was buried with military honors nearby.
Michael Bailey says
An I con all the years traveling south to the museum we always looked for the plane in long lake was exciting to see .we are here now staying in long lake an wondered where the airplane went. Soo sad to hear rip
Geoffrey Manganaro says
Helms Aero service was an inspiration for me gaining a career in aviation maintenance….sorry to see Tom pass, he will be greatly missed !
Years ago in the 1950s I was fortunate to go on an evening ride in a Helms seaplane.
David Bower says
We were just there at Long Lake last week, and wondered where the floatplanes were. Wishing clear skies to Thomas Helms, and condolences to his family.
dennis hickey says
Flew with Tom to Tirrell Pond and Trout Lake a few times when he first started taking over more flights from Herb in the ’80’s. A good man.
Dave Wormuth says
Got to know Tom when he taught at St Lawrence. Lucky to fly with him a few times. Once was a big loop down to Piseco and over to Elk Lake and back with the family. He had an innate sense of when someone was “getting green gills.”
Will be missed for sure.
Marty Hogan says
I flew with Herb, Tom Helms and Todd Helms Junior. About 35 years worth of fantastic flights. I enjoyed his clever wit. He was such a fixture I will miss him and all my friends from California New York and Florida were sad to hear about this as well.
Peter Jennings says
Just read about his passing in the “Explorer”
We used to fly in for a week of hunting each fall back in the 80’s with Herb& Tom. First time I ever went UNDER a bridge in a plane, or helped with maintenance prior to flying (while waiting for the fog to lift), or landed on ice for some Winter camping. So many stories!
Best wishes for the Helms Family, and Rest in Peace Tom.
William Christopher Lamb says
So sorry to read that Tom has recently passed on.
I’m sure he had a great life, doing what he loved, and in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I was lucky enough to fly with Tom way back in 1998 and was able to get a photo of Tom’s dad at the plane’s controls which my mom had taken many years before (in the 1950s). I had an 8″X10″ copy of that photo made from mom’s, and sent it to Tom to hang in the lakeside office. I knew it was there after he’d hung it at home for a while first. I got to fly with Tom again in years past… there’s a picture from my old website — of my third wife and I in our gold shirts — on the dock right after a flight.
Jeff Kirby says
A flight with Tom in 2008 to pick up our daughter from camp in NH and return to the Adirondacks in time for a family reunion caused me to get back the flying bug after about 26 years away from it. Soon after, I got my seaplane rating. Have been flying a lot ever since. We have a framed Helms Aero poster in our camp, a gift from our kids. Tom was a legend and a fine person. Am sorry just now to receive news of his passing.