Accident prevention during helicopter rescues
Oliver Cuenca talks to experts in the field of aerial rescue about the biggest threats their crews face – and how to mitigate the risks involved
Flight conditions are ‘biggest risk’
Conducting helicopter rescues is inherently dangerous – in the heat of the moment, there isn’t much time to consider your options. Conditions may not be optimal, with crews under pressure and lives on the line. Mitigating these factors is critical.
Mark Stanton, Bristow UK’s Search and Rescue and Compliance Monitoring Manager, notes that for helicopter rescue crews, ‘the biggest risk’ is the local environment – something which is ‘constantly changing’. “It depends on where we are and what we are doing,” he said. “Are we responding at night? Is the weather poor? Is it a cliff or sea rescue? Crews are trained to continually and dynamically risk assess their situation, whatever it may be.”
Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) is the top operational risk when conducting helicopter search and rescue (SAR) – when an aircraft unintentionally collides with terrain because of poor visibility. Due to the urgency of missions, crews typically have little control over flight conditions, increasing the potential risk of CFIT. And while an experienced crew can make a judgement call against taking on the mission, mistakes can be made.
Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) is the top operational risk when conducting helicopter search and rescue
Stanton explained that when dealing with adverse operating scenarios, the decision to deploy an aircraft ‘ultimately lies with the commander’, who makes a calculated decision based on factors such as weather, tasking priority, capabilities and terrain to be crossed. However, ‘most importantly’, he added, they will take ‘advice from the rest of the crew’.
Consequently, experience and training are fundamental to decision making. “Of course, we have incredible equipment – from stabilized, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras to advanced avionics – but it’s our people and their skills working as a high-performing team that makes the real difference. The ability to deploy comes from training,” Stanton concluded.
This includes specific crew preparation, ‘to help them recognize and deal with distraction’, as well as practice in a range of relevant scenarios.
Richard Bryson, Hoist and Winch Business Development Manager at Collins Aerospace, agreed, saying that ultimately, ‘whether to deploy an aircraft is a judgement call on the part of the operator’.
“But certainly, operators train extensively to master their environments and grow accustomed to working in their typical weather conditions – which can be extreme. Even in the face of severe risk, operators are committed to saving lives.
“However, what operators tell us is, if you train for it, you can do it. If you’re in an operating environment that calls for mountain rescues, you practice those so everyone on the team is experienced. You practice in low-pressure situations, so when someone’s life is on the line and the pressure is on, your training kicks in and it’s instinctive.”
The role of geography in determining flight safety parameters
In addition to deciding whether to deploy under specific conditions, Stanton added that ‘geography plays a major role’ in how Bristow crews ‘train and prepare’.
“Our scenario-based work ensures crews have the right capabilities for the tasks they face. For example, our teams in Inverness will do more training in mountainous regions than those in Newquay, where there is a focus on maritime situations,” he said.
Mountain rescue crews might need to be trained to operate in ‘extreme close proximity’ to vertical terrain, ‘often in low visibility and at night’ – as well as dealing with the challenges of turbulence and icy conditions for both aircraft and crew.
Kim Germishuys, Hoist Operator, Rescue Swimmer, Board Member and SAR Technical Crew Member of EURORSA – Rescue Swimmer Association, agreed: “The biggest challenges … are when we are hoisting onto and off a vehicle that is being tossed around, or when flying near a mountain, where the wind is causing turbulence, due to disruptive air currents.
“The risk of snagging the hoist hook, cable, a piece of equipment or a hi-line can be high in some conditions,” she said. “But what keeps the crew safe is that everyone is situationally aware – we brief a situation well and if, at any stage, someone is not happy, we stop and reset.”
But what keeps the crew safe is that everyone is situationally aware – we brief a situation well and if, at any stage, someone is not happy, we stop and reset
By contrast, maritime crews ‘need to be trained to find people and vessels in huge areas with almost no visibility and often challenging weather conditions’, Stanton continued.
“If the casualty is in the sea, then the winch paramedic must be trained to enter the water and safely carry out the rescue in high sea states,” he said. “Winching to and from a ship also requires great skill and attention, particularly if it is pitching and moving on the waves – here again, a successful operation hinges on training and teamwork.”
“I think the risks are different for each individual operator and vary depending on mission profile, aircraft type, equipment and geographical complexity,” said Rob Munday, a Hoist Operator for Blackcomb Helicopters and instructor with SR3 Rescue Concepts. “As a rule, I’m always very cautious in any situation when the redundancy built into our plan is reduced or eliminated. For example, a hoist operator or rescue specialist on the wire is usually only secured to the aircraft by a single connection point – if this was to fail, or not be connected correctly, it’s a big problem.
“It’s a risk we must accept,” he continued. “But strong adherence to checklists and trained procedures is critical, because so are the consequences.”
This also applies when developing a plan for a rescue scenario: “I tend to focus heavily on the portions of the plan where we’re thinking ‘if something goes wrong here, it’s critical’ – hoisting out of tall canopy in a single-engine helicopter would be one such example,” Munday explained.
Crew wellbeing a priority
Above all, regular training is critical to ensuring the wellbeing of crews during rescue missions, said Germishuys. “Across all European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) registered companies, it is mandatory to undergo a minimum of six hours of crew resource management (CRM) training over a three-year period.
“This can be split over three years; however the company chooses [to organize it],” she said, adding that: “All those I have worked for ensure that the CRM training we receive, and case studies that are covered, are relevant to the operation we are involved in.”
- EASA has issued guidelines for CRM elements which need to be taught, including:
- General instructions on CRM principles and objectives
- Human performance and limitations
- Threat and error management
- Personality awareness, human error and reliability, attitudes and behaviors, self-assessment
- Stress and stress management/fatigue and vigilance
- Assertiveness, situation awareness, information acquisition and processing.
Munday also endorsed the value of training, explaining that he was ‘a strong believer in pre-briefing your emergencies before they happen’. “This idea has two components. Firstly, you need to be well informed of all the possible emergencies, malfunctions and abnormal events you may actually experience.” This must also be followed by education about the ‘correct response … in the event that one of these issues is ever encountered, which must be trained extensively to build muscle memory’.
“The second component is during on-scene rescue reconnaissance, taking the time to identify the hazards and potential ‘pinch points’ if something was to go wrong, and what the specific remedial actions of the crew will be.”
There’s a big difference between being ‘current’ and ‘proficient’. If you hoist during the evening, using night vision goggles (NVG), into tall trees, or a stretcher-type device and taglines – you should be training that technique as well! Performing a hoist at your local airport from 10ft isn’t likely to set you up for success
One example is a ‘a spinning load’ – when the hoist operator or hoisted cargo is caught in the downwash of the rotor and begins to rotate. “If this occurs,” Munday said, “pre-briefing the mitigation strategies of keeping the load away from the rotor wash – while establishing forward flight – takes something that would otherwise be quite dangerous, down to a very manageable and calm response.”
Munday concluded that the idea is to turn what could be ‘seat-of-your-pants’ decision making during abnormal events, into a ‘doing what we briefed beforehand’ situation. However, he warned: “There’s a big difference between being ‘current’ and ‘proficient’. If you hoist during the evening, using night vision goggles (NVG), into tall trees, or a stretcher-type device and taglines – you should be training that technique as well! Performing a hoist at your local airport from 10ft isn’t likely to set you up for success.”
Munday would prioritize training and good equipment over any push for more regulation or legislation to improve the safety of aerial rescue missions. “In my experience, regulatory change is typically reactionary, rather than proactive in nature. New regulations are largely in response to what the industry is already doing or has been asking for.”
Instead, he recommends the use of ‘checklists and the practice of real-world training’. “I’ve encountered more times than I’d like to, organizations that still do not utilize any kind of formal hoist checklist for pre-mission or on-scene assessments.” He added that ‘laborious or cumbersome’ checklists are just as bad, because they discourage crews from using what ‘should be an asset to the mission’.
Elimination of human error in flight safety
While piloting a helicopter during rescues is rarely straightforward, hoisting also poses risks. “Hoisting is a dangerous activity,” said Germishuys. “When someone gets in trouble, it is often on a bad weather day – and turbulence can also play a part.”
Turbulence, from both wind currents and the helicopter’s own downwash – the aforementioned spinning load – is a significant threat, which can lead to disorientation and injury for both the operator and the person being rescued. At worst, it can result in the hoist cable being cut. However, even without such problems, hoisting equipment undergoes stress during operation. Ensuring a high level of redundancy is important for the safety of hoist operators and patients.
I rely heavily on my safety lanyard and harness – these two pieces of equipment give me the confidence to move freely in the cabin doorway or on the helicopter’s skid while hoisting in challenging conditions
“I rely heavily on my safety lanyard and harness – these two pieces of equipment give me the confidence to move freely in the cabin doorway or on the helicopter’s skid while hoisting in challenging conditions,” said Germishuys.
Munday agreed: “I’m a big fan of eliminating the ‘human error’ aspect of any potential mishap,” he explained. “So, utilizing quality equipment that has been designed for purpose, is easy to use and reduces the chances of misuse is what I’m always looking for.”
He recommended triple action auto-locking carabiners and snap hooks ‘whenever possible’, and removing any non-locking carabiners entirely. In addition, ‘we only ever use double action carabiners for equipment’. He also values including appropriate lanyards designed for helicopter evacuations at altitude.
“We’ve [also] started implementing a quad-lock quick-release device into our water rescue harnesses recently … which makes it almost impossible to inadvertently release, but remains very intuitive when needed in a real emergency,” he added.
Crucial advice for those engaging in activities that can literally be life or death.