Ireland can boast 1,970 miles of varied coastline and inland mountain ranges, which have presented challenges to aviators ever since the earliest days of flight. Its westerly shores are exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, with large waves that have travelled across the north Atlantic, building up enormous amounts of energy by the time they hit the west coast. The east coast is more sheltered, but has its own unique characteristics to test fliers.
Rob Tatten is in overall charge of CHC Ireland as its General Operations and Accountable Manager. He joined CHC in September 2019 after 28 years in the airline business, having worked in both engineering and flight operations where he held positions of Technical Planning Manager and Director of Flight Operations, lastly working for CityJet. He described CHC’s busy operational set-up: “CHC Ireland has about 144 staff and five Sikorsky S-92 helicopters servicing four bases at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo. Each base has nine to 10 tech crew, pilots and engineers, plus admin, support and management staff. Some 85 per cent of our missions are all-weather SAR, the remaining 15 per cent are HEMS – medical emergencies and hospital transfers,” he remarked.
CHC SAR crews are on 15-minute readiness during the day, and 45 minutes at night. “We currently have a reliability in crews and aircraft of 96 per cent,” said Rob proudly. “There are two categories of SAR call-outs we attend: rescue – where there is a serious danger of loss of life; and assisted – where a casualty is in imminent danger. In terms of last year (2021), CHC Ireland across the four bases rescued an average of 16 people and assisted 23 more. We fly on average 260 hours a month and two-thirds of that is for training, which is a crucial part of what CHC Ireland does, so the crew remain proficient in their skills to ensure safety is paramount for what they do.”
Covering the Irish SAR region
CHC covers the Irish SAR region, which stretches well out into the Atlantic Ocean and bounds the UK SAR region. “Operationally, we are often requested by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to assist across boundaries and that cover can track up the west coast of the UK,” commented CHC Ireland’s Technical Crew Manager, Gary Robertson. “Dublin covers over to the west coast of Wales, the North Channel and the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland sits inside the UK SAR region, but there are no dedicated rescue helicopters for the UK based there. Historically, we’ve supplied SAR into Northern Ireland at the request of HM Coast Guard – mainly to the Mourne mountains, the west of Northern Ireland, and the north coast.”
Our missions can take us a long way out into the ocean where 20-foot seas are not uncommon and these can prove a challenge for winching operations
“All our SAR missions are conducted in the environment of the North Atlantic. Half of our work is out in the Atlantic itself. The Irish coastline, particularly the west, south-west and northern sectors, has very rugged and challenging terrain. Our missions can take us a long way out into the ocean where 20-foot seas are not uncommon and these can prove a challenge for winching operations.”
Gary noted that there’s quite a lot of overlap with the UK SAR region. “Occasionally, we do organ transplant runs into the UK to destinations as far afield as Birmingham, London and Newcastle, but these are very much secondary to our primary SAR role.”
Drilling down into the detail of what this means for an individual SAR crew based at one of CHC’s four bases in Ireland, Advanced Paramedic Winchman, Brian Clancy, described his experience: “I’m based at Shannon, where the landscape is rugged and the weather can change dramatically, especially off the west coast. If we get a tasking to a rescue 100 miles offshore, we’ll likely be facing high seas and high winds.
“Prior to moving to the Shannon base, I spent the previous three years on the east coast – one year in the Dublin base, and two years in Waterford, where I was trained by and worked with some of the most experienced guys in SAR. I learned a huge amount from them. Even today I can pick up the phone and ask their opinions, pick their brains on a tricky job, or if I need any advice.
“The east coast is a big area to cover and equally challenging. More shipping operates in these waters – ferries and cargo ships sailing up the Irish Sea into Rosslare and Dublin. We deal with injured crewmen and people taken ill on ferries. We also cover the mountainous areas where people go walking and climbing, which is where they can fall and need our help. As well as SAR work, in Shannon we deal with several islands off the west coast. We carry out a lot of HEMS and medevac tasking for the island populations.”
Over last 20 years or so, the military have been moving away from SAR provision. There’s no longer a production line of ex-military crews feeding into civilian SAR operations, which hitherto had been a ready source of highly trained personnel. Rob Tatten explained how the situation has changed in recent years: “Pilots are either ex-military or come from other commercial operations, paying for type rating, and we’ve found some very good candidates this way,” he explained. “This year we’ve recruited four pilots and five tech crew. The pilots are not type-rated when they join us. They have to go through an Operational Conversion Course (OCC); even if they are already type-rated they still have to do an OCC. Brexit has been a complication, as any SAR crews in England that don’t have an European Aviation Safety Agency licence if they didn’t convert, means they are not suitable.”
Recruiting tech crew
Lately, there has been a recruiting issue with technical crews. “It’s a global problem,” commented Rob. “CHC has a rigorous selection and on-boarding process. We advertised 18 months ago for tech crew for which we had only two suitable applicants – and that was from around the world! One went to our competitor and the other joined us. We do take people from the ambulance service who already have a high level of medical training.”
Robertson and Clancy both have ambulance paramedic backgrounds. “I’ve been with CHC for 11 years, and prior to this I was an ambulance paramedic with the NHS in Northern Ireland,” said Gary. “I joined CHC in 2011 as a paramedic/winchman before progressing to dual-qualified winch operator/winchman, then senior crewman based in Sligo for three years.”
Brian has been with CHC for three years: “Prior to this I spent 10 years with the Irish Ambulance Service as a paramedic, where I upskilled to advanced paramedic,” he revealed. “I had no aviation background whatsoever when I joined CHC after responding to a recruitment drive for trainee winchmen.”
It was a significant culture shift for Brian to make from land ambulance to airborne paramedic winchman
It was a significant culture shift for Brian to make from land ambulance to airborne paramedic winchman, as he described: “When I went into training it was a different world, completely new, almost like learning another language. It was a challenge getting to grips with the aviation side of things – it’s a very different role as a paramedic winchman compared to working as a land ambulance paramedic, but I absolutely love it.”
A day in the office – Technical Crew Manager
What does the job of Technical Crew Manager actually involve? Gary Robertson provides an insight: “I’m responsible for managing the activities of winch operators, winchmen, paramedics, recruitment, manning, training and standards. It’s at the top of the management tree on the technical crew side, with two Chief Crewmen Standards (CCS) reporting – for both SAR and Medical Standards. The senior crewmen at the four operating bases of Sligo, Shannon, Waterford and Dublin report to me on technical crew matters,” he disclosed.
On a daily basis, the role can be quite varied, as Gary describes: “A lot of time is spent with staff looking at new ways of working or stabilizing what we’re doing – manpower and rostering, process development (how we conduct tasks e.g., how we conduct a certain mission, or address a gap in our skills or equipment, or simply investigate a better way of doing things).
“Operational queries come to me – and I work closely with the CCS on SAR matters. All decisions have to receive formal approval from the regulatory body, the IAA – the Irish Aviation Authority.
“On some days I’m office-based, but I could be working out of any of our four bases in Ireland. Occasionally there’s a foreign trip to review new equipment, for training operations, or to observe where best practice exists so we can benchmark ourselves against other operators.
“I have regular meetings with the Irish Coast Guard (our customer) and cross-service meetings with the fire service, ambulance, mountain rescue team, and other external organisations. These meetings are important because they help us decide how best we can plan, work and exercise together, and head off any potential problems before they present.
“SAR is a unique and very niche business to be in, with equipment that comes to us from suppliers across the globe. This week, for example, we’ve been looking at four new pieces of kit. We like to assess it before we consider taking anything on, reviewing our existing equipment against new developments. For example, we’ve been considering new helicopter safety and rescue equipment from a European provider. We may progress a few to formal trials and then report back with any issues.”
A day on the wire – Advanced Paramedic Winchman
Advanced Paramedic Winchman Brian Clancy works a 24-hour shift pattern, from 13.00 to 13.00hrs “We normally come in for our shift half an hour beforehand, sitting down with the off-going crew for a handover where we’ll talk about any ongoing taskings, snags with equipment etc. We do a pre-shift check of everything onboard, all that we need to carry out a rescue and the medical equipment to treat a patient, as well as our own personal kit, then we grab some food before all the madness starts!
“It’s a six-man crew on base – two ground engineers, two pilots and two rear compartment tech crewmen – the winch operator and winchman (Ireland is unique in that all winch operators are dual-rated winch operators/winchmen). The two engineers are at the base for tech support, maintenance and refuelling duties etc. They’re on hand immediately for any technical issues we encounter.
Crews always train on every shift, for which they put together a training flight plan – currency, or items that need a training flight built around them. “For example, we may practice some deck winching onto a boat,” commented Brian. “The pilots will also have their own training plans, for example practising in the hover behind a moving deck. We train with lifeboats, winching on to the back of the boat. For ‘wet’ training, a mannequin is dropped into the water and we practice rescuing it. If we don’t get a tasking, we’ll carry on with the training flight. If a tasking comes in, we might carry on with the training at the end if time allows.”
When training and experience count
Gary and Brian have both been involved in difficult rescues during their time with CHC Ireland. “I’ve had quite a few challenging callouts,” said Brian. “From out of Shannon we received a call at 02.00hrs one morning as a high priority task to an injured fisherman on a trawler in the ocean 100 miles south of County Cork. His leg had been partially amputated in a deck accident.
“This rescue presented us with multiple challenges: first of all, the casualty had suffered a life-threatening injury; there were 15 to 20ft swells; and the Spanish crew, who were on a relatively small French trawler, didn’t speak any English, which further complicated things.
“When we arrived on-scene we used the high-line technique to get onboard. The vessel was pitching and rolling a lot and it was very difficult to get onboard. I used the high-line as a guideline for lowering onto the deck, reducing the risk of spin, and I eventually got down on to the port quarterdeck of the trawler.
“The helicopter had enough fuel for roughly 45 minutes on task. The injured man was below deck in the hold, lying on a pile of fish in the fish locker. His leg had been partially severed by a cable snapping, and he’d already lost a huge amount of blood after about two hours bleeding out through his wound. He was semi-conscious and in a bad way.
“Our fuel reserve was reducing by the minute and the plan was if I couldn’t get him off in time, the lads would have to leave me on the trawler and return to base, refuel and return. We spoke direct to Medico Cork and Medico Madrid over the phone, where a consultant advised us on the meds we should be using. I applied a tourniquet and administered ‘green whistle’ (Methoxyfluorane) for pain relief. We needed to get him off fast as I couldn’t give him any more treatment below deck.
We needed to get him off fast as I couldn’t give him any more treatment below deck
With the casualty secured in a stretcher and using hand signals to the trawler crew to instruct them what to do, we were winched up and into the helicopter. He was flown to hospital and we later found out he’d survived the trauma, but his leg had been amputated.”
Gary Robertson was winchman on the Rescue 118 mission from Sligo to a capsized sinking trawler at Innisinny Bay, Arranmore Island on 9 April 2016. Gary received a bravery award and the rescue received national press coverage.
“I’d say in terms of intensity, that mission flown by Sligo aircraft Rescue 118 was the most intense job I’ve ever participated in,” he recalled. “Since then, I’ve done three or four that have come close.
“It was the luck of the draw that I was there: you had no control over what job you might get called to and I happened to be the guy on the cable that day. That Rescue 118 mission stands out because the casualty was in the water and tangled in thick rope. I had to literally cut him from the ocean. I was so focused on the rescue – it was technically difficult, then there were cable management issues, appalling sea conditions, getting hold of the guy and then cutting the ropes away.
“After the physical effort of the actual rescue it took about three to five minutes to get the casualty winched up and back into the helicopter, but after we recovered to the aircraft, I felt like I’d run a marathon. That mission was very high intensity. Definitely a memorable job.”
Gary was quick to point out that missions like these are ongoing
SAR crews do valiant work day to day, and many challenging rescues simply fall into what we see as ‘routine’
week to week. “Most of the time, people don’t get any additional credit for what they’re doing – and they’re not seeking it – but at this point I should note that the SAR crews do valiant work day to day, and many challenging rescues simply fall into what we see as ‘routine’.”
The final word must go to Brian Clancy when he says that the biggest thing for him is the sheer amount of experience in CHC. “The guys I work with have 20 to 30 years’ experience – the pilots, the winch operators and the engineers – which is really reassuring to be working with such experienced crews. It’s a huge thing for someone junior like me to know guys above me have so much experience and skill in the job. I know the guys who are putting me out on the wire have got me. Their experience in this game, you can’t buy it – it keeps us all safe.