There are any number of products that a search and rescue organisation can use to extract its victims, and it depends on the mission profile and the patient’s condition before a rescuer is able to determine which one is right for the job. James Paul Wallis considers the options available
Helicopter rescue equipment can be roughly divided into four types of devices: rescue slings, harnesses, winch stretchers and rescue baskets. They vary in size, cost, complexity and ease of use. As Sami Ollila, a rescue swimmer with the Finnish Border Guard Air Patrol Squadron, wrote in the decision to winch (Rescue Swimmer, 2018), the devices also vary in terms of the physical strain they put on a casualty, with rescue slings being best suited to casualties without serious impairments and rescue baskets being the best choice for the most injured patients. Although the rescue devices of today have a lot in common with what’s been in use for the past few decades, gradual improvements have been made to increase safety and efficiency.
The rescue strop has been in use for helicopter SAR missions for decades. The basic device that passes below the arms and around the back remains a simple and effective device for winching suitable casualties. The word ‘suitable’ is important here, of course. Lifesaving Systems Corp, for example, states that its Quick Strops should only be used for ‘uninjured’ persons. In a web post for Lifesaving Systems, Mario Vittone, General Manager, qualified the restriction, saying that rescuers need to assess their patients’ injuries and make appropriate choices (for example, using a strop for a person with a broken finger might be acceptable, whereas it wouldn’t be a good choice for a patient with a suspected C-spine injury).
Over the years, alternatives to the simple loop strop have been introduced. Dave Allport, Technical Director at SAR Products, states that he was inspired to add leg loops for the casualty after he witnessed the rescue of people from plane that had crashed into a river. In that case, he said, ‘the partially conscious, cold casualties kept slipping out and back into the water’. A simple adaptation to reduce the risk of the casualty slipping out of the strop is the addition of a crotch strap, as seen on the Helicopter Rescue Quick Strop offered by Lifesaving Systems, which was approved for use on UH/HH-60 Black Hawks by the US Army in 2016.
Over the years, alternatives to the simple loop strop have been introduced
Manufacturers have also explored the area between the basic strop and a litter. The middle ground is a vest or rescue wrap, such as that offered by LiteFlite, which secures the patient in a reclined or seated position, and eliminates the risk of falling seen with a basic loop. Bob Cockell, Vice-President of Air Rescue Systems (ARS), told AirMed&Rescue that the ARV-QC ARS vest is in use with operators around the world, adding that the US Army only recently awarded an airworthiness certificate (AWR 980) for the military version following a ‘lengthy testing and certification process’. Testing is being completed with the US Navy and US Marine Corps, he said, commenting: “The overwhelming response has provided a big thumbs up to the devices design, function and use parameters.”
Litters and rescue bags serve the role of stretchers that hang from the winch hook. A relatively recent development is the Air Rescue Extraction System (ARES) developed by ARS in 2016, which ARS said was created out of the need for a ‘lightweight, safe, intuitive and multi-purpose victim extraction device’. The system includes a number of design features aimed to improve function, such as the ability to use a drag parachute during short-haul operations to prevent rotation. Similarly, a sail-like fin can be used during hoisting to control spinning of the litter in the helicopter’s downwash. The bag also hangs not directly from the hook, but from separate connection points on a shaped flight bar, making it easier to set up and more stable in use.
Rotation has also been addressed by Cascade Rescue, whose new EASA-certified StableFlight helicopter rescue bag features the company’s ‘revolutionary’ Rotation Breaking System, which eliminates the need for tag lines. Dana Jordan, President of the firm, mentioned Colorado High Altitude Training Center in Colorado, US, as a recent customer.
Allport mentioned that SAR Products’ Alpine litter can be lifted by SAR helicopters and is in regular use in the UK and around the world. The company is always looking to improve its range, he said, and there have been ongoing refinements over the years, such as changes to handle locations and where the optional wheel locks onto the frame.
there have been ongoing refinements over the years, such as changes to handle locations and where the optional wheel locks onto the frame
There are also those little extras that aid functionality, such as the Litter Rail Pads that Lifesaving Systems brought to market in 2017. These pads fit over litters’ metal siderails, acting as bumpers to protect airframes from damage, as well as increasing the litter’s buoyancy. Serving a similar purpose and released the same year are the company’s Skid Shoes for baskets and litters, which protect the underside of the frame, which can otherwise be damaged while dragging across rough surfaces such as tarmac. Vittone commented at the time that the shoes help a basket or litter to remain functional up to its intended service life, rather than being worn out prematurely through everyday use.
As with strops, rescue baskets have a long pedigree. However, things can always be improved upon, said Lifesaving Systems’ Vittone. He said: “In the last year, we made design modifications to our rescue basket and rescue litters, both of which are over 30 years old. [In November 2018], we designed a compact titanium frame and mesh face-shield for our Medevac II rescue litters. And [in 2017] we designed a new magnetic-ring hoisting sling that solved a decades-old problem with cable and sling management during hoisting.”
The US Coast Guard (USCG) fields rescue baskets across its helicopter fleet. In 2018, the USCG reported that Coast Guard Academy mechanical engineering cadets had working with the USCG Research and Development Centre (RDC) on prototyping a new and improved rescue basket. According to the USCG, the new design ‘could revolutionise the way the Coast Guard conducts search and rescue missions onboard the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters’. The improvements are in response to a 2009 RDC study that noted limitations in the USCG’s ability to quickly remove large numbers of people from hazardous marine situations.
Speaking at the time, First Class Cadet Christian Breviario explained: “We have added a means of entry that is easier for people who may be injured or have limited mobility. We have also maximised the space dimensions of the basket, given the dimensions of the MH-60 Jayhawk cabin. With these modifications, we have made the basket more accessible, decreased the amount of time needed per hoisting evolution, and improved upon the effectiveness of the Coast Guard during mass rescue incidents.”
The new basket can accommodate two seated individuals, potentially halving the time needed to lift a group of survivors
The new basket can accommodate two seated individuals, potentially halving the time needed to lift a group of survivors. The cadets also reconfigured the flotation system, surrounding the casualty with buoyancy material, thereby increasing comfort, and raising the basket’s buoyancy by 79 pounds of force.
One flaw of existing basket designs is the difficulty for survivors with reduced mobility, perhaps due to injury or hypothermia, to climb in while in the water. For this reason, the cadets added an access door that opens to make entry easier.
It remains to be seen whether the design will be finalised and put into production, although the USCG confirmed to AirMed&Rescue that a patent application is ongoing.
Another area of development is in multi-person rescue devices, typically connected to the helicopter’s cargo hook as a short haul set up due to the weight involved. While such systems have been available for some time, interest is growing, said Greg Yerkes, CEO of Life Support International. He added: “In light of the recent fires in California, there has been an uptick in interest in multi-person helicopter rescue or transport devices.” Yerkes described the rescue nets available from Billy Pugh Co., which are available in four or 10-person versions. He noted that the nets are foldable for easy storage, and even allow for secure transport of victims that have been pre-packaged onto backboards or litters.
Another option is the Heli-Basket HB2000, a rigid cage that can take as many as 16 people to safety. The HB1000, meanwhile, can rescue six people. Both are manufactured by HeliBasket LLC in the US. HeliBasket has partnered with Integral Risk Global to market and distribute the equipment, and is also the only the company that HeliBasket endorses to deliver training using both baskets.
Martin McGrath, Director of Integral Risk Global, reports that the company is pursuing approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the HB2000 as a complex personnel carrying device system (PCDS). Approval is expected to be granted in 2019. McGrath explained: “The approval will allow owners and operators to pursue operational approval through their respective aviation authorities.” If the Heli-Basket platform is going to be used for human rescue by agencies whose aircraft are civil aviation registered, then civil certification will be required. For operators of military or state registered aircraft, it will be for the authorities in question to certify the equipment for use.
Inside the helicopter, customer requirements have changed over the past five years, commented Cher Min Teo, Chief of Strategy and Marketing at GVH Aerospace. He added: “[Customers] are increasingly asking for modular aeromedical and rescue products that can be used to rapidly reconfigure a helicopter. In the past, rescue and aeromedical helicopters used to be almost exclusively configured and dedicated to the role. With smaller helicopters, this is still mostly true. With the medium and heavy helicopters, we are seeing customers opt for role change modifications with an emphasis on being able to modify the aircraft very quickly, for example, from passenger configuration to search and rescue configuration.”
A factor here is that more helicopters are being leased instead of purchased, said Teo: “Permanent rescue modifications can be very costly to reconfigure for the next operator, and modifications that are not FAA or European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)-approved tend to require a lot of rework and recertification to EASA and/or FAA standards when the aircraft is transitioned from one lessee to another, especially when it is transitioned to a different country. From the operator’s perspective, they like to be able to reuse the equipment on a new helicopter. From a lessor perspective, the lease rates can be lowered if the operator does not require permanent aircraft modifications.”
Permanent rescue modifications can be very costly
The modularity concept is enabled by GVH Aerospace’s patent pending multi-fit floor interface system, said Teo, which can be configured at the flight line to install stretchers, medical and rescue stowage cabinets and oxygen stowage racks. He explained: “By changing as few as two interchangeable parts, the interface system can be installed on a different aircraft type. The entire system is designed to be installed without the need for tools, and customers are often surprised by how quickly the aircraft can be configured to support a rescue mission. We are steadily expanding the portfolio of equipment in this product line. Apart from being a catalogue item for the RUAG Dornier 228 aircraft, we have completed Supplemental Type Certification (STC) on the EC135 and are about to complete certification on the AW139.”
Teo noted that EASA and the FAA have begun tightening up the certification requirements for oxygen systems. These changes improve safety, he said, especially for oxygen distribution systems that are permanently installed behind cabin walls, where leakages or faults cannot be easily detected. He continued: “The additional certification efforts do have an impact on costs to bring products to the market. However, our modular role-change system does not install piping and tubing behind side walls, making faults and leakages really easy to detect.”
Adapting to the air
At the smaller scale though, future development could revolve around making devices more flexible, and perhaps simpler. Helicopter rescue devices were first based on equipment used by ground-based teams and it’s only relatively recently that manufacturers have fully embraced the needs of aerial crews, said Adam Davis, Manager SART/TAC at Priority 1 Air Rescue (P1AR). He commented: “One of the greatest shifts we’ve really started to see over the past 10 years is the movement towards embracing textiles to produce SAR equipment in lieu of traditional alloy-based rescue devices. One of the best ways we can reduce the equipment weight is to move to soft-sided devices. With this movement we have seen a lot of designers and manufacturers start making a great assortment of soft-sided, easily packable, and lightweight litters as well as other modern devices for ambulatory patients to substitute rescue baskets, which are heavy and take up a lot of space, or strops, which can provide a number of safety concerns if not properly used. Two examples of such devices are our PEP Bag (Patient Extrication Platform) and AVED (Ambulatory Victim Extrication Device). These are pieces of equipment that we have been employing and continually improving upon based on real-world use and feedback for the past 10 years.”
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the movement to textile-based rescue devices...is the existence of overly complicated designs with matching high prices
However, Davis added a word of warning. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the movement to textile-based rescue devices, he said, is the existence of overly complicated designs with matching high prices: “Because modern materials are so easy to work with, designers and producers can bring some very creative ideas to life and then to market; however, we end up seeing some very high equipment prices along with them. Some of these designs have been game changers, but some of them, though very neat, are unnecessary.” Davis asserted that the limited budgets of SAR agencies were a key consideration when P1AR started working with manufacturing partners to design and produce helicopter SAR equipment. He explained: “A rescue device does not require bespoke machined alloy hardware, and the price that comes with that, to be a top of the line piece of equipment.”
Allport of SAR Products also noted that there may be options to adopt light, stronger materials in the future, but added that there’s a balancing act here, as such changes could increase costs.
No doubt we’ll continue to see innovations gradually being introduced into this field. Having said that, as Davis points out, the most important factor in a successful rescue is the training of the team and their familiarity with the equipment they have: “Ultimately, regardless of the equipment an agency uses, it all comes back to training. If a highly trained expert practitioner of SAR fundamentals is well versed in his equipment, even with sub-par gear, they can execute a very successful rescue. The inverse, however, is also true; you can have the best equipment available but if you are not properly trained on that equipment, the outcome of the rescue may not be successful.” Agencies should therefore focus on balancing budget spending between being able to outfit their crews with great gear, while also not spending so much that they cannot also afford to provide proper training to their rescue crews, he added.
As for whether we’ll see basic strops being replaced with more complex devices, it’s worth bearing in mind a point made by Ollila in the Rescue Swimmer article, who said that ‘helicopter rescue scenarios can be challenging and complex in a way where the rescue method posing the highest physiological risk may be the only practical option’.