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Since the first successful civilian helicopter rescue November 29, 1945 few fundamental changes have occurred in the way basic search and rescue is conducted.  There’s still a helicopter pilot, still someone maneuvering the hoist with the rescue “basket,” and either one or two rear crewmen aiding the victim and supporting the operation.  What has changed, especially over the past 30-35 years, are the tools search and rescue specialists use.

“Aircraft systems, navigation technology, hoist technology, and the reliability, serviceability, and capability of all of them have improved ‘hundreds-fold,” says Brian Johnson, Chief Crewman who, with his team of 37, fulfills search and rescue contracts with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) in the United Kingdom for global helicopter provider CHC.  Johnson is responsible for standards and training for the organization.  His team deploys an average of 250 missions a year from each of two bases in the North Sea (Stornaway and Sumburgh, The Shetlands) and two others on the English Channel (Lee-on-Solent and Portland in Dorset).  “Today, with our delivery vehicles operating faster, longer, higher, stronger, we can fly in worse weather conditions, get in faster, get out faster, and save more lives.”

Break-Through With Rescue Swimmers

Perhaps one of the most significant advancements made in search and rescue doesn’t involve transport or technology, but people.  In 1981 the U.S. Coast Guard began a program to train rescue swimmers to be inserted into distress situations and deliver emergency treatment on-site to injured victims, secure them in a litter for extraction, and provide medical treatment during transport.  Prior to this change in rescue protocol a helicopter simply hovered over a rescue victim and dropped a basket that the victim had to climb into before they could be evacuated to the nearest treatment center.
Butch Flythe, U.S. Coast Guard, retired, was in the first class to be certified as rescue swimmers.  “That is easily the biggest change in search and rescue that has occurred over the past 35 years,” says Flythe.  “It enabled rescuers to help the victim into the helicopter so they weren’t left to their own resources.”  The U.S. Coast Guard is the primary search and rescue organization in the world, saving thousands of lives and helping thousands of people each year on the high seas and coastal areas of the United States.

More Power

Faster, more powerful helicopters deliver safer lift off and better control in rough weather, satellite systems guide aircraft to a search area of 55-square yards rather than two-square miles, and specially trained rescue swimmers equipped with field medical knowledge deploy on hoists that can drop 290 feet in 50 seconds, once hazard assessments at the scene are made.  These improvements, along with standardized commentary that results in clear communication between crew members, contribute to more successful rescues and safer overall operation for those who put their lives on the line each day.

Aside from rescues in the difficult conditions of the North Sea, Johnson’s group is routinely called to in-shore rescues on sea side cliffs or in the sheer cliffs of mountain ranges of the Scottish highlands.  Recently more of the rescues he’s been deployed to have been from aircraft going down into the sea because of the growing amount of aviation traffic to and from the Norwegian and British coasts out to the more than 570 operating oil rigs.  Johnson is a 32-year search and rescue veteran and was with one of the first crews on the scene December 21, 1988 at the Pan Am Flight 103 air disaster over Lockerbie in southern Scotland.
 
“We want to spend the minimum amount of time out and back so we can get the casualties to the hospital as soon as possible,” says Johnson, whose team uses Sikorsky S-92s and Agusta AW-139s.  “Extra power from our vehicle helps tremendously in our situation because we may go out to pick up someone in the mountains who’s fallen and most likely by the time we get there, they’re not only suffering from the injuries from the fall but from hypothermia as well.  Time is of the essence.”
AC Power for Equipment

Getting casualties out of harm’s way faster while reducing risk and exposure is one advantage of more powerful aircraft, but according to Brad Matheson, President of Priority 1 Air Rescue headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, there are many others.  As an example, Matheson sites the availability of AC power in operating vital rescue equipment as a significant step forward in safety for air crews.

“Many aircraft have ample AC power and this can greatly increase performance of mission-critical equipment,” says Matheson. “The AC power option allows you to draw more performance from the hoist resulting in smoother, more consistent, and faster operation for the SAR mission.”

Translating Drum Hoists

While AC power and performance is a major benefit for rescue crews, Matheson, who has been the training manager for Priority 1 Air Rescue for 11 years, sees the invention of the translating drum hoist as a major advantage in search and rescue.   Matheson also works as a search and rescue crewman and paramedic on a 24/7 NVG search and rescue medevac program.

Goodrich Corporation introduced the translating drum technology. The rescue hoist translating drum moves fore and aft on a near frictionless ball-spline, resulting in cable entering and exiting from a single point.  The benefits include a more consistent layering of the cable reducing the possibility of miswrap, reduced cable wear, reduced load on vital hoist parts, and reduced loads at high fleet angles.  For crews, this means more consistent, reliable operation in extreme and unpredictable rescue situations.  Level-wind hoists use a guide block in the front of the hoist that moves both directions on a level-wind screw.  On translating drum hoists, tension between the guide out point and drum is maintained by the guide block.
 
The high fleet angle afforded with translating drum technology overcame the limitations of traditional level-wind hoists.  With level-wind hoists, off-angle lifts significantly increase side load on the level-wind mechanism causing stress that creates the potential for cable miswrap.  In contrast, the translating drum technology absorbs the side loads through a primary structure rather than a level-wind mechanism.  Total torque on the translating mechanism never exceeds eight pounds regardless of the fleet angle.  
Goodrich Corporation is the leading provider of translating drum and level-wind hoists to search and rescue operations.

Chris Bond, who began his search and rescue career in 1971, joined Bristow Group, Inc. in 1976.  Bristow Group is a global provider of helicopter services, transportation, maintenance, search and rescue, and aviation support, believes the translating drum hoist has made a dramatic difference in search and rescue.

“It does make a difference what type of hoist you use, in as much as translating drum hoists are significantly faster than level-wind hoists, especially  AC driven translating drum hoists,” says Bond.  “They react from one speed to another quicker and if the operator is given good training he will be able to convert that quicker operation to lifting people in an appropriate manner so that they avoid discomfort while being rescued.”

Dual Hoists “Like Extra Aircraft”

Matheson also cites the use of dual hoists as a growing requirement in search and rescue, especially for organizations operating in extreme environments.  Priority 1 Air Rescue currently has 74 search and rescue operations air crew personnel and has conducted classes for more than 1,000 people worldwide for government programs, commercial search and rescue operators, law enforcement, and U.S. and foreign military units.  In all training classes Matheson stresses the importance of dual hoists as a safety factor.

“For organizations operating in places like the Bering Sea or the Atlantic, dual hoists provide a force multiplier that significantly increases risk management and the chance of executing a successful mission,” says Matheson. “It gives the ability to be twice as safe.  If you have a problem you don’t have to keep using a damaged cable with your fingers crossed.”  He equates a dual hoist system to having a second helicopter on the scene that can immediately take over the SAR mission should a cable on the primary hoist be damaged or have to be sheered to protect the aircraft and crew.  Rather than abort a mission, just switch to the secondary hoist system.

“There are documented cases where agencies have had catastrophic results by having just one hoist or one helicopter in the field,” says Matheson.  “If you are in the middle of the North Sea or the Atlantic conducting a search and rescue mission off a fishing vessel, and a hoist cable gets entangled on a piece of the ship’s rigging, you have to cut the cable.  In that case you’re stuck looking down at the people to be rescued, or your partner, and you have no way of getting them off.”

Bond, the 38-year search and rescue veteran, agrees that dual hoists on rescue aircraft have much to offer.  Bristow Group, headquartered in Houston, Texas, operates approximately 450 helicopters including S-92s, CD-225s, DC155s, AS332L-2 (Tiger) and S-76s.  In the UK alone, Bristow completed its 10,000 SAR mission in late 2005 and has flown in excess of 15,000 SAR hours rescuing nearly 7,000 people.

“Aircraft are very sophisticated and expensive devices,” says Bond.  “And the hoists aren’t cheap, but crewmen are irreplaceable and when you put the crewman on a cable near a ship heaving at night, they are in their most vulnerable position.“

With more than 10,000 hours on search and rescue himself, Bond has seen most everything.  Over his career he’s served on missions in a variety of terrain and water that have saved the lives of more than 1,100 people.

“The biggest risk in a hoist rescue is cable damage caused by a heaving deck at night,” says Bond.    “When you’re out several hundred miles off shore, the most vulnerable piece of equipment is the cable with a crewmen on the end of the wire.  In heavy seas I’ve seen big ships heaving 15- to 20-meters.  If you damage the cable slightly you really cannot risk winching in with damaged cable so with dual hoists we can ‘de-risk’ the situation simply by transferring to the other hoist.”

Back-up is Critical to a Successful Mission

No matter what kind of hoist a helicopter is equipped with, or how many hoists an aircraft has, redundancy and flexibility are critical to success.  “Many agencies, whether they’re commercial operators, government search and rescue, or law enforcement, get their first hoist and think, ‘We never need to deal with short haul again,” Matheson says.  “That’s possible, but you never know what a rescue is going to throw your way and you may need to resort to former options as a back-up in the event of a non-functioning hoist.” That’s why Matheson requires on-going emergency training exercises in short haul, for his duty air crews and instructors.  “We tell clients to try to keep as many back-up systems as possible if they’re not equipped with dual hoists.”

Train, Train, Train

Every search and rescue specialist understands the value of training.  But Bond, Johnson, and Matheson can’t emphasize training enough.  “Volatile” skills, those that search and rescue personnel execute instinctively, are the only kind of skills that matter in the heat of battle.  They become part of the regimen, part of the rescuer, and they are an essential part of performing successful missions.

“The most difficult jobs we do are seaborne jobs where there’s a high sea state, low visibility, driving rain, usually at night, with a small deck,” says CHC’s Johnson.  “Getting airborne out here in force nine or force ten gales is a common occurrence.  If you have to think, we’ve got a problem.”

Bristow’s Bond, who has a roaming commission from the United Kingdom to Australia, is often called to train search and rescue personnel throughout the world.  He believes it is training that reinforces the teamwork required for successful missions and requires one to two hours a day when staff is on the job.
“In order to consistently pull off rescues in difficult conditions the whole crew must work together as a team,” says Bond.  “Helicopter search and rescue is by definition teamwork of the highest order.”

While other tools like forward looking infrared radar, night vision goggles and electronic horizontal situation indicators add to the strength of a rescue team, at some point it all comes down to the individuals on board.  For Johnson it’s a matter of heart. “People who work in search and rescue are all fairly driven individuals,” says Johnson.  “They want to come in, do the job, deliver effective search and rescue.   I’ve never met anyone in this business around the world that didn’t want to save lives and make a difference.  It’s what we do.”

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