When you hear the words ’helicopter mountain rescue’, you might picture soaring peaks in the French Alps, with vertical walls that defy belief like one might see on the famous El Capitan in Yosemite, or even the spectacular Canadian Rockies or Coast Mountain range where I currently reside, but what you don’t expect to hear is Arkansas, US. You might be surprised to hear that’s exactly where SR3 Rescue Concepts recently completed a helicopter rescue training class for the Arkansas National Guard and members of Arkansas ’Task Force One’, on the use of a highly specialized mountain rescue device known as the LEZARD - made by French equipment manufacturer, Petzl.
Where it all began
Over a decade ago, some clever folks from the French Gendarmerie identified the need for a better system for inserting and extracting their helicopter rescue technicians into and out of complex mountain terrain. Many rescue organizations around the world are still dealing with this challenge using techniques that require the technician to secure themselves to some form of anchor on the ground prior to disconnecting themselves from the helicopter longline or hoist hook. Doing this, even for a short period of time, effectively connects the helicopter directly to the terrain and introduces a significant hazard for the rescue technician as well as for the aircraft and its crew.
Recognizing this hazard, the Gendarmerie approached Petzl, and collaboratively designed, engineered, and ultimately manufactured the LEZARD, an ingenious tool that allows rescuers to tether themselves to an anchor on the ground prior to disconnecting from the helicopter, all while retaining a breakaway capability from the anchor should the aircraft move, or experience a more significant emergency. The tool is effectively a very fancy rigging plate, or MAP ring, which combines the rescuer and victim lanyards, with a specific attachment point for the helicopter longline or hoist hook and a yellow detachable tail for anchoring to the terrain. The key to the device, however, is the breakaway capability of this detachable tail.
Innovation by design
Many rescue personnel that first lay eyes on the LEZARD have reservations, questions, and uncertainty, but those quickly disappear as their training progresses, and they are consistently surprised by just how redundant the levels of safety built into the system are. As with all helicopter rescue operations, proper training and equipment familiarity is essential, and this tool is no different in that respect. In the hands of an untrained individual, greater risk exists for most rescue tools. However, with just a basic understanding of the way the LEZARD works, it’s clear that a huge amount of thought has gone into its design.
At no time that the tool is connected to the hoist hook is the rescuer ever exposed to the risk of a fall, or ’release’ of any kind. There is a permanent connection between the helicopter and the rescuer, through the frame of the device, the release capability is only able to release the rescuer from the wall. There are two critical components in the system to understand. Firstly, the lock mechanism in the top eye of the frame, where only the helicopter hoist or longline hook connects to, and secondly the gate, where the tail of the device that tethers the rescuer to the wall anchor connects to.
The key feature is that when the lock, activated by a downward force of 30kg (66lbs) or more, is not depressed (anytime the hoist hook is unweighted or completely removed) the gate simply cannot release. Once the rescuer has removed the hoist hook and is working on station, the device also cannot release unless severely misused. The gate also only releases when the yellow tail is pointed downwards beyond (below) horizontal and subjected to a pull of 20kg (44lbs) or more. Providing the rescuer remains positioned below the anchor and weighted via the yellow tail, there is also zero risk of a fall, again, unless severely misused. This is where thorough training and following Petzl’s strict protocols is critical – during this transition phase from aircraft to terrain, and off again. If the aircraft moves excessively while the rescuer is still on the line, the rescuer will simply depart with the aircraft, and leave the yellow tail behind, connected to the wall. This is typically a very low-stress situation and is actually quite a common occurrence during highly technical operations. There are many times where it’s even planned and briefed in advance that the tail may need to be ejected and left behind. A typical hoist ’insertion’ to an anchor would look like this.
- Rescuer is in the aircraft door, and double checked
- Rescuer deploys to the anchor, and connects the LEZARD ’tail’ to the anchor
- Rescuer is lowered below the anchor and weights the LEZARD ’tail’
- Once fully weighted, the hoist hook is removed, and the aircraft departs.
- The rescuer then packages the victim for extraction, and the process is reversed.
Not just a mountain rescue tool
The LEZARD is primarily marketed as a mountain rescue tool, however it has many other usage cases as well. One such example is during swiftwater rescue operations. Consider the situation where a kayaker or a raft has overturned and has washed up on an unstable riverbank. Often, someone who has been swept downstream in floodwaters finds themselves holding onto, or even in, a tree, with no way out. The LEZARD can be used to insert technicians to this terrain to connect to an anchor, or even build an improvised anchor in the tree or on the riverbank to allow a smooth transition from the hoist cable or longline to the terrain. The tool can also be used in offshore vessel operations where the risk of a fall exists. The LEZARD is also seeing great success in the electrical transmission line environment, allowing line workers access to structures by helicopter. It can even be used in urban tactical operations, or for accessing industrial structures like cranes or offshore wind turbines.
Some important considerations
There are a number of other considerations that an organization should take into account before integrating the LEZARD into their human external cargo (HEC) program. Firstly, it’s important to recognize that to effectively transfer a crewmember into the types of locations for which the tool is ideally suited, a very high level of technical proficiency must first exist within the team in that environment. The aircrew must be consistently able to, with complete control, lower a technician into a fixed, stable position beneath the aircraft, within a bubble of about two to three feet, and hold them there, with no swing or unwanted movement for up to 30 seconds, reliably and consistently. This takes practice and a combination of a skilled pilot and hoist operator to accomplish, and I would encourage any unit that is interested in using this tool during an operation to consider this information. The training to bring any team up to that level of proficiency is readily available, but it’s important to recognize that this is a minimum requirement before commencing this type of technical hoisting, and some foundation training may be necessary before jumping into LEZARD specific work.
Next, one must consider the proficiency of the personnel who will be hanging on the end of the hoist cable or longline. A lot of the terrain to which the LEZARD allows access is technical in nature, and rescue specialists must be comfortable working in that environment, as well as have the necessary skillset and equipment to self-rescue if the aircraft has a mechanical issue or cannot return due to weather or another unforeseen event.
One other consideration for agencies wishing to integrate the LEZARD into their equipment toolbox is the need for initial and ongoing proficiency training. HEC operations in technical terrain are, for most, a low-frequency, high-consequence activity, so it is important to make a commitment to ongoing skills maintenance, which is ideally a combination of ground-based skills and live flying in representative real-world terrain, to keep the skills sharp!
Integration into your program
There are three components to an SR3-provided LEZARD training program. Firstly, it’s important to note that SR3 Rescue Concepts is a Petzl Technical Partner (PTP) – a designation provided by Petzl that authorizes us to provide LEZARD training programs. A LEZARD user course is the first step, which consists of a one-day training program split evenly between ground-based theory, and an afternoon on a suitable structure performing mock-up exercises practising the correct usage of the device across a range of scenarios. This training program is valid for three years from date of issue, after which a one-day refresher is necessary. An instructor group that consists of a flight instructor to assist the pilots with the technical aspects of this complex flight operation, as well as two Petzl-certified LEZARD trainers that have real-world hoist operator, longline and LEZARD rescue experience is the standard composition. However, alternative arrangements are always possible. Class sizes can range from one to 24 participants.
Petzl has stipulated that only users certified by a PTP can purchase a LEZARD device. Once your training is successfully completed, SR3 will provide you with your own device(s). SR3 is a Petzl equipment vendor and can take care of the purchase of the LEZARD tool, and all your other equipment needs, from start to finish.
Lastly, it is highly recommended by SR3 that additional live flight training is carried out prior to deployment of the LEZARD in a real rescue scenario. Typically, we recommend three to five days in total for a comprehensive training course, depending on your prior experience operating in complex terrain and the needs of your agency based on the proposed usage scope of the device. This includes the mandatory training, plus two to four days of real-world scenarios in the areas of operation most suitable for your agency – mountain and cliff terrain, urban, maritime, electrical transmission lines and swiftwater environments, as well as night operations, which are all available options! All SR3 classes are custom built and will be tailored to your specific needs.
I have personally deployed the LEZARD on a number of real rescue missions now and I can confidently say that it’s a game changer. Knowing that the rescue technician on the end of the line is using the LEZARD when transitioning from the hoist cable to difficult terrain is very reassuring. We’ve found that even after a short training class, rescue technicians, hoist technicians, and pilots all feel an increased sense of safety and confidence when faced with these difficult operations.