Around the world, there are a significant number of reasons to carry out helicopter hoisting operations, the most obvious of which is rescue. Many organisations also perform such operations for other reasons, such as to enable workers to reach areas that would be either problematic – or impossible – to access using alternate methods, including shipping vessels for marine pilot transfer services, powerline workers to structures and wires, wind turbine construction and maintenance, and firefighter insertion into dense forests to enable quick access to remote wildfires.
I’ve been lucky enough in my career so far to have experienced almost all of the above situations, and the differences that must be considered before performing operations of such varied purpose are incredible. It’s safe to say that I have learned some great lessons along the way.
Considerations for offshore rescues
Offshore operations are challenging because of a few factors. Aircraft typically need to be very well equipped to venture offshore safely. Pop-out floats, life rafts, emergency underwater escape training and breathing systems, weather radar, twin-engine redundancy, and instrument flight rules capability are desirable – and often legal requirements – which limits many operators from even considering performing these operations.
For those that do have that capability, once on-scene, your only reference may be the target vessel itself. Without anything for the pilot and hoist operator to look at, a rescue can get very challenging very quickly, particularly if the vessel itself is pitching and rolling in heavy seas – which isn’t an issue in land-based operations where the ground (hopefully) isn’t moving. Taglines are regularly used to assist in guiding loads to and from the target area.
A major consideration is the aircrew needed for offshore operations compared to onshore – actions in the event of a hoist failure or other aircraft emergency can be very limited when offshore, while worsening weather conditions can creep up on even the most prepared crews, so having two pilots can assist with maintaining situational awareness and sharing the workload.
Hoisting over land is different
Onshore operations, by contrast, bring their own unique challenges. Altitude and temperature play a key part in calculating aircraft performance, and can often limit capability. Winds and tall tree canopies can cause concern, and accident scenes are rarely as easy to work around as you’d like them to be. Many agencies conducting these operations are flying in small, single-engine aircraft that are space and / or weight limited; often, the mission is all about fuel and load management, taking the bare minimum in personnel and gear required to accomplish the goal.
We also regularly work with various specialty groups like SAR volunteers, which may have even more specific teams, like rope rescue, swift water, and K9 teams, as well as firefighters, powerline utility employees and marine pilots. For each situation, the flight crew will often need to approach the mission differently, depending on the level of comfort of each group working around the aircraft and their training and skill set. All too often around the world, we see accidents where members of the crew have exceeded their capabilities, and we are always mindful of that in our own operations.
Adapt, learn and come home safe
The key takeaway for me is that I’m always learning. Every situation is different, and things can change quickly even with a highly experienced crew. Being well trained, adaptable, thinking logically, and above all, being willing to say ‘no’ when things aren’t going well will bring you home at night, regardless weather you fly offshore, or inland missions.