Interview: Manolo Guillen, AW139 Lead Instructor, CopterSafety
AirMed&Rescue spoke to Manolo Guillen, AW139 Lead Instructor for CopterSafety, about his newest role with the simulation training company, and his history in HEMS, SAR and aerial firefighting cockpits in Spain
Congratulations on your newest role with CopterSafety! What are your primary responsibilities now that you are Lead Instructor?
Thank you! As a lead instructor I’ll have to co-ordinate, supervise and standardize the rest of the instructors, as well as take care of the customer training programs through creating, testing and approving each session in order to provide pilots with the highest quality training.
You started your flight career as a pilot with the Spanish Air Force, flying firefighting missions in a Canadair CL215T. It’s a high-stress introduction to a life in the cockpit! What made you want to do these missions in particular?
Flying those beasts is one of the best professional experiences I’ve ever had! No stress at all, just fun.
Before joining the 43rd Squadron, Spanish Air Force pilots go through a demanding selection process in the academy, not to mention the pressure they put on you in order to be ready and face future situations along your aeronautical career. Once you reach your squadron, it’s time to enjoy your time there, especially once you see yourself inside the beautiful Canadair cockpit with your hand on the throttle controlling such a powerful aircraft, and your finger on the ‘discharge’ button.
By this time, I had already experienced what aerial firefighting is. Before joining the Air Force, I had already obtained my helicopter pilot licence, and flew B212-412s as a flight student for two firefighting campaigns. It’s hard to forget the smell, the tension and the feeling of being useful doing what you love. When I had the opportunity again, I didn’t hesitate to go for it.
Several years of your career were then spent working for Inaer; what were your highlights of being part of the team?
Inaer, now converted into Babcock, has been my home since the first day I stepped out of the Air Force, and I have nothing but gratitude for them. I started as a SAR pilot flying the AW139 directly after leaving the military, and it couldn’t have been a better start to civilian life.
Teamwork, professionalism and dedication are the most remarkable values I found in the Coast Guard. I feel very proud to have belonged to such an incredible team, and learned what has been – so far – my favorite helicopter operation.
Working as SAR captain for the Spanish Coast Guard, what were the unique challenges you faced during your day and night operations in your particular region? How do these differ from other areas of Spain in terms of geography, terrain, weather etc?
This is a good one … for a SAR pilot, the north coast of Spain is definitely not the place to have fun, however, it is one of the most challenging scenarios where we pilots want to be to put into practise the skills we have learned. Most of the time, you find conditions up there are quite rough.
If you want to eat good fish in Spain, the sea off the northern coast is the place to go; hundreds of fishing boats go out every night to ensure the freshest catch is delivered to restaurants in the region. With such a large number of people working at sea, it is highly likely that the SAR crews will be activated at some point during the night. ‘Far, ugly and late’ are the most feared factors to encounter during a SAR mission and, in the north, you’ll get all of them together more often than not. Here are just a few examples: Far – my first mission as a captain was at night to find a fishing boat located 192nm away with an injured fisherman onboard; we had a maximum of 12 minutes to complete the hoist operation.
Ugly – the north coast is very unpredictable weather wise; therefore, at night, when no airports or air traffic control are operative in the area, arrival at the home base could result in some unexpected operations. Alternative landing procedures are trained for, and sometimes applied due to fog, especially in winter.
Late – every training flight was flown at night since most of the missions were at night too.
The north coast is also where the highest cliffs are, so suicides and accidents happen often too; unlike the rest of the Spanish coast, where flatter terrain is seen.
You still fly HEMS missions in Spain; what has your experience been like this year during the pandemic of flying missions in such a newly high-risk environment?
It makes me feel very proud to be part of the team that helps people in one way or another. Although we are not expected to directly treat Covid patients, you never know where it is. So, all the Covid security measures are taken in every flight to avoid risk.
Flying a helicopter in the Spanish summer, at 40°C, with all the Covid protection equipment on, is quite challenging!
Do you feel like there is an improved focus on safety in HEMS operations in Europe now, compared to say, five or 10 years ago? What positive changes have you noticed during your time in civilian HEMS / SAR operations?
Operators are more and more aware of what safety means, and how important it is. In fact, investment in training has been exponentially growing in the last few years, not just because pilots demand it, but also because authorities require it.
The aviation world has historically – and unfortunately – had to learn from previous mistakes. During my time in the Coast Guard, an AW139 crashed into the water, leaving three dead and one wounded. That helped us to change many things in the operation of our aircraft – for instance checklists, procedures and checks for nighttime flights were introduced, as well as organizational improvements.
Forest and wildfires are becoming more widespread in Europe, and all over the world; would you be tempted to return to aerial firefighting duties if the situation demanded it?
There is no better feeling than being useful with whatever you’ve been trained for. Although fires are sad stories for plenty of living beings and I pray that there are no more, I’d be very glad to have the chance to help if the situation demands it.
What are your hopes for the future of HEMS and SAR operations in Europe? Do you think that investment in new aircraft will result in better outcomes, or is it more about training?
Training is the key, not just for aviation, but for most aspects in life. The more you do something, the better results you get. The technology we are using in aircraft nowadays demands a lot of training and knowledge to keep it at the highest possible level for safe and effective operations.
When you train, you acquire confidence in yourself, in the procedures, in colleagues and, of course, in the aircraft. We pilots are better in every aspect when we train.
I speak on behalf of almost every pilot if I say operators should invest more in training, especially for such operations. That is what my experience as an instructor tells me. While the best aircraft is always welcome, being given the latest technological advances without proper training in how to operate them could result in disaster.
How did CopterSafety adapt its services during the European lockdown caused by Covid-19, and how is it ramping operations back up now that people are able to travel to train and use your simulators?
The main limitation in training at CopterSafety was imposed by each customer’s country. Although we have been applying all the safety measures to keep everyone safe in our facilities, the main handicap has been travelling – or the lack thereof. Many nationalities are still not allowed to travel to Helsinki, and some others are not allowed to accept their citizens without a work permit from CopterSafety.
Since the Covid situation in Finland has not been as dramatic as in other countries, our facilities have been open almost all the time. Luckily, everyone here is safe and ready to keep working to bring our market back to the point of how it was last year.
You’ve been with CopterSafety for a few years now; how have you seen the company change and grow in that time, and what are the company’s goals in the future?
I have been working with CopterSafety since 2015 as a freelancer. It started being a ‘family’ company, and has grown fast during the past few years; therefore, adaptations and standardization have been happening constantly for it to reach the level and size we now have. Although that family concept still comes to me when I am at CopterSafety, such an increasing number of customers and training courses requires organization, planning and, obviously, more people to provide the service. In our facilities, we offer training for four different types of helicopter; one of them is the AW139 with two devices.
We aim to be the highest-level helicopter training provider in the world. Through the experience of our carefully selected instructors, we want to have an impact on pilots by making their professional life safer and easier.