In April 2022, CHC Helikopter Service – the Norwegian division of CHC Helicopter – began operations in Svalbard under a new 10-year search and rescue (SAR) contract.
It was awarded on behalf of the Governor of Svalbard by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice – the government department ultimately responsible for the unincorporated territory, ‘guaranteeing proper observance of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty’ and ‘maintaining the existence of Norwegian settlements’.
While the responsibility for SAR operations in such a remote territory might usually fall at the feet of the military, the treaty actively prohibits their presence in Svalbard, enforcing both a demilitarized zone and free economic zone in the region. Consequently, SAR operations can only be undertaken by civilian operators.
The 24/7 emergency rescue helicopter service employs a pair of Airbus AS332 L1 ‘Super Puma’ helicopters, based at the airport in Longyearbyen and operated by a six-person crew, including one doctor. “The helicopters were acquired [in part] from the previous operator, and also from our own fleet,” explained a CHC Helikopter Service spokesperson. SAR operations were previously operated by Lufttransport RW AS.
The two aircraft are being kept at ‘one- and two-hours preparedness, 24/7, respectively’, the spokesperson continued, and ‘we will have 30 staff, including pilots, hoist operators, system operators and rescue crew’. Four management staff are also stationed in Svalbard. Given its remote location within the Arctic Circle, all maintenance work is done in-house.
The Svalbard operations are supported by CHC’s new mainland base at Tromsø, which opened on 1 July. The base, in northern Norway, hosts another AS332, kept on one-hour preparedness at all times, and is staffed by 18 crew members – as well as one hangar foreman, a base technician and base manager.
Rigorous crew training
Most training of CHC Helikopter Service crew is carried out by CAE Inc. This includes regular simulator training for all pilots every six months, carried out using a flight training device in Stockholm.
“Simulator training is required to maintain a pilot’s licence, but also to provide operational training,” the spokesperson said. “For all SAR pilots, two extra hours of simulator time is allocated for mission-oriented operations, compared with non-SAR pilots. Medical personnel do not receive training in this simulator.”
Medical crews do, however, undergo helicopter underwater escape training (HUET), carried out by RelyOn Nutec, a UK-based firm.
“We actually have two groups of medical personnel onboard our SAR helicopters, in accordance with the contract,” the spokesperson said. “We have medical doctors who are all anesthesiologists – they have their normal duties at the University Hospital in Northern Norway (UNN-Tromsø).” These doctors receive flight operational training, HUET and crew resource management (CRM) training, plus any other requirements, through CHC.
“Then we have rescue-crewmembers (RCM), onboard at all times. These are recruited from the paramedic environment, or are qualified nurses, and must hold RCM – a National Standard for Rescuemen (Norway) qualification.”
This includes a recurrent program of training, including medical and operational rescue, in environments such as climbing, glaciers and rivers. In addition, they are required to follow similar operational training to standard medical crew, including HUET and CRM training.
Medical staff for CHC operations in Svalbard and Tromsø are provided by Norway’s Health Region North, ‘with one on duty at all times, to cover the helicopter on one-hour preparedness’, and have been ‘trained in accordance with company procedures’.
Darkness is obviously a challenge north of the Arctic Circle in the winter season
A unique flying environment
Given Svalbard’s northern position, lying between 74° to 81° north latitude, CHC faces numerous unique challenges on the island. This includes ‘total darkness for four to five months every year, combined with extreme cold weather…where we are the only SAR resources in the area’. Average winter temperatures in Svalbard reach around -20°C.
“Darkness is obviously a challenge north of the Arctic Circle in the winter season, [however] the aircraft are compatible with the use of night vision goggles (NVG), and the crew are trained to use them through a mix of theory, simulator practice and in-aircraft use.”
To meet the requirements of the contract, CHC acquired new Elbit AN/AVS-9 Aviator NVG systems with white phosphor and a Figure of Merit (FOM) of 1800, for both its Svalbard and Tromsø operations.
When facing the Arctic weather, CHC’s Svalbard team rely on both ‘a significant amount of experience and knowledge about the environment’, as well as a range of ‘procedures and limitations’ outlined in the company operations manual.
“For example, we have updated procedures for flight in whiteout conditions,” the spokesperson explained. “When landing on a glacier with blowing snow, the crew are trained how to safely land and take off from very difficult conditions. In addition, we have an Arctic survival program, teaching crew how to cope if they become stuck in remote areas.
“Weapons are onboard the helicopter at all times because of polar bear attacks, with each landing in the terrain requiring crew to be outside the helicopter,” they added.
Polar bears in the sky
In addition to SAR operations across Svalbard and its territorial waters, alongside air ambulance missions to trawlers in the icy Barents Sea, CHC Helikopter Service’s Svalbard operations also include the transfer of polar bears, at the behest of the Norwegian Polar Institute.
CHC Helikopter Service’s Svalbard operations also include the transportation and transfer of polar bears
“The procedures for transport of polar bears by helicopter are not frequently used at Svalbard,” CHC said. “It only happens in cooperation with the Norwegian Polar Institute – under the supervision of approved veterinarians.”
Once sedated, the bear ‘loses its thermostat’, meaning that ‘it is not an option to carry them via an external sling load in the cold temperatures, as they would freeze to death’. Instead, following an appropriate risk assessment, the sedated polar bear is taken onboard the Super Puma and transported within the cabin.
However, the Polar Institute prefers to move animals via other methods when they become a risk to human settlements in the region. The process remains a part of CHC’s operations arsenal, however, because ‘polar bears are a protected species, and they cannot be shot unless being an immediate danger to people’.