In the sky and on the ground, Thomas Helms recalled as Adirondacks luminary


LONG LAKE — 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.

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His home base was the crook in Route 30 near the Long Lake 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. While taking to the skies, students were often guests and the doctor only saw his notoriously nonemotional friend tear up once.

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 held Monday at St. Henry’s Parish Center in Long Lake. He was buried with military honors nearby.




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