Most organizations that perform hoist missions realize the risks and challenges and train on a regular basis. Over the years, organizations have used a wide variety of methods, both simple and complex, to train for hoist missions. The key to effective training is to make techniques and procedures second nature for the crews. This requires the leaders of these organizations to dedicate enough training time and money to create safe, skilled crews.
Use existing resources
There are many very effective training techniques that require little or no monetary expenditure; in fact, some even save money. The easiest is to use the rescue helicopter itself as a form of simulator. With the ship connected to power, the crews go through all the procedures and checklists as if they were in flight. Lights can be dimmed or shut off in the hangar to reflect night missions. The benefit is the reinforcement of standard procedures that repetition allows. Crew communications can be practised over and over, as well as the vulnerable time of the crew entering and leaving the cabin on the cable with and without a victim. It allows each individual crewmember to find the proper body mechanics to move loads of different weights in and out of the cabin using different rescue devices. With the basics well learned, the crew can focus on specific missions to maximize flight training time.
This technique is especially effective for organizations that do not perform a lot of hoist rescues or who use volunteer or part-time personnel. As an example, DRF Luftrettung in Germany uses contract doctors to staff their hoist rescue helicopters, who may only work one shift in 30 days. To keep their skills up, the entire DRF crews practise hoist rescue communications, equipment use, checklists, and procedures every morning on the helipad.
Simple training devices have been developed by other organizations that allow realistic simulation at a low price. In the US, many fire and law enforcement agencies use military surplus Bell UH-1 helicopters for hoist missions. It is not unusual to obtain extra UH-1 airframes as a source of spare parts. Unused airframes, with a hoist attached, can be mounted on a 15 to 20-meter tower. This allows both hoist operators and rescue technicians to practise all phases of a hoist rescue at any time without having to burn expensive flight time. Another advantage of this type of simulation is that any evolution can be stopped to correct mistakes and discuss any questions or issues that arise.
Devices other than helicopters can be useful in training for specific types of rescues. In the southwestern and southern US, flash floods are a common occurrence during the spring and summer months and many hoist rescues are performed with vehicles stuck in rapidly moving flood waters. Since these types of rescues are typically only performed at certain times of the year, it is important to be able to maintain skill levels at all times. Many agencies have turned old vehicles that have been stripped of all fuel, oil, and other hazardous materials and turned them into training tools. These vehicles can then be put in bodies of water and used for practising the unique rescue techniques used for entering occupied vehicles in flash floods.
Another type of rescue that is a low-frequency / high-risk situation is rescuing victims from a building, particularly if a window is the only means of entrance or exit. A valuable training tool for these situations is often a fire department training tower. These concrete towers are often five or more stories tall with windows and doorways. These are excellent training sites for simulated flood or earthquake situations. An additional advantage to using the towers can be working with the local fire department rescue teams that would be responding to these incidents.
The key to effective training is to make techniques and procedures second nature for the crews
Keeping it real
Some organizations have developed very sophisticated high-fidelity hoist training facilities. Bergwacht Bayern, the Bavarian Mountain Rescue Service, has a state-of-the-art training facility located in Bad Tolz, which is used by rescue organizations from all over Europe. Suspended from the roof of an enclosed building are two helicopter fuselage mock-ups. One is based on the BK117 helicopter and the other is generic to represent a larger helicopter such as an Airbus H225 or Sikorsky S-92. Each cabin is attached to a moveable crane that can induce pitch and roll changes. The movement can be controlled by a pilot in the cockpit for training complete crews, or by remote control in the building for cabin crew only training.
The mockups are equipped with fans to simulate rotor downwash, strobe lights for lighting effects, and loudspeakers for sound simulation. A hoist can be mounted on either side of the cabin and be fixed or able to swing out to match the hoist type of the team being trained, with a weight rating of 270 kg. The facility can be used night or day, and one of the benefits of it being an enclosed facility is that training can be done during any weather conditions – an important factor for meeting time-critical training requirements.
In addition to realistic helicopter simulation, the facility has a wide variety of props for different types of training scenarios. Both cable car and ski lift rescues can be simulated. Several rooftops, as well as a water pool, are available. In addition, a rock-climbing wall is available for practising the rescue of climbers from a vertical surface.
Pilots, hoist operators, and rescue technicians have the option of training together or individually. For example, Air Zermatt, based in Switzerland, does its hoist operator training in-house, but sends the medical personnel who go down on the cable to Bad Tolz once a year. In addition to being exposed to a wide variety of rescue situations, they also perform detailed medical and trauma patient simulations under realistic conditions to simulate a complete mission from start to finish.
The US Coast Guard, meanwhile, has a very sophisticated facility to train its rescue swimmers. At its heart is a 25 by 50-meter water pool that is four meters deep. Twin towers are equipped with the same hoist system as on the MH-65 rescue helicopter. Two large fans can create winds of up to 70 knots with nozzles that can create driving rain and spray, while an overhead fan simulates rotor down wash. Strobe lights simulate lightning, and a sound system can recreate the noise of a hurricane, thunder, and helicopters. In addition, a wave machine can create swells of up to three feet. This simulator allows rescue swimmer trainees to experience gradually more difficult ocean rescue scenarios from the time they deploy from a helicopter, reach a victim, and bring them to a position from where they can be hoisted.
A new generation of reality
Just as cockpit simulators with sophisticated computer graphics have made an impact on pilot training, virtual reality (VR) has entered the world of hoist rescue operator training. Priority 1 Air Rescue (P1AR), based in Mesa, Arizona, has been offering hoist rescue training for 20 years. In addition, they offer turnkey search and rescue (SAR) helicopter operations.
“We purchased our first VR trainer in 2012,” explained Brad Matheson, President of P1AR. “We originally bought it for standardizing training among our own instructors and for our rescue crewmen employees on SAR contracts. We compare synthetic rescue hoist training to simulator pilot training, which is now the standard. Synthetic training offers many advantages such as decreased cost, decreased flight time and maintenance on aircraft, standardized conditions, greater safety, and the ability to create situations that would not be safe with live helicopter training.”
Matheson added: “We offer full crew training, but are rear cabin crew centric. With synthetic training, we can gradually increase the difficulty, complexity, and stress loading of the training in a safe environment that can be halted for discussion and correction before bad habits and techniques are established by students. We can also simulate situations that cannot be done in live flights, such as cable shearing decision scenarios. If a cable becomes entangled, the hoist operator must be able to immediately recognize when shearing the cable is needed and perform the steps to quickly accomplish it, or the entire aircraft and crew are in danger.”
Matheson pointed out another advantage of synthetic training, which is learning how to deal with a spinning litter or persons on the cable. Students learn what causes spins, how to avoid them, and what to do if spinning occurs. Live training must still be done with helicopters, but, by the time this occurs, the students have practised proper techniques and know how to anticipate and deal with problems and unusual situations.
The VR hoist trainer is configurable to mimic many different airframes with door, seat, and hoist positioning. The student handles a real cable to get a feel for how it moves up and down. They can map out the exact interior of the cabin for a customer, so it looks exactly like one of their aircraft, down to what and where the rescue devices are stored in the cabin. The student looks through a set of helmet-mounted goggles, very similar to NVG devices. So, they have some peripheral vision around the devices.
Priority 1 Air Rescue uses Google Whole Earth modeling for location and terrain data simulation, allowing the company to recreate the terrain features found in a student’s response area. A wide variety of weather conditions can be recreated, and lighting levels varied, with night vision goggle conditions also an option. In addition, they can create boats and vessels, varying wave heights, and put multiple survivors in the water for mass rescues. It can create scenarios involving cliff rescues and people stuck in trees. Large-scale urban disaster scenarios such as floods and building rescues, with obstacles such as power lines, can also be simulated.
Virtual reality also allows new challenges to be replicated and trained for as they arise. Both in the US and Australia, major wildfires have led to helicopter rescue scenarios that have never been encountered before. Learning to deal with smoke and moving fire fronts is perfect for computer simulation that cannot be replicated in any other way.
Learning to deal with smoke and moving fire fronts is perfect for computer simulation that cannot be replicated in any other way
“We have the benefit of being both trainers and actual SAR providers through our SAR contracts with offshore oil companies,” commented Matheson. “This allows us to refine the training and make it look like the real world. The needs of our students are what drives our simulation. We can provide synthetic training missions that P1AR has conducted in real life and recreate them in the hoist simulation. We get feedback from our students that tell us that the scenarios and training is very realistic. We are very lucky in that we have rescue operators on our staff who are also very proficient in computer graphics and are able to create realistic scenarios with the company that we are using for our VR devices.”
One step at a time, in many ways, training for hoist missions has taken a similar path that pilot training has taken. First came just flying the helicopter, then came partial simulators, and finally sophisticated VR systems
with detailed computer graphics. The final steps, which are just now beginning, will be national and international training standards developed by helicopter rescue organizations.