- 15 Oct 2021
- GA Buyer Europe
What does a rescue helicopter sound like to a victim when approaching? “Joy, Reassurance, Hope?” Suppose you want to know how Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters bring relief to victims and their families. In that case, Patrick Ryan highlights the unique elements of this critical lifesaving operation and how the helicopter gets the job done.Back to Articles
Without a doubt, the introduction of helicopters in the 1940s dramatically changed the reach and power of search and rescue work. Search and rescue (SAR) operations that were once limited by rescuers’ ability to traverse or navigate rugged terrain or conditions, environments sufficiently dangerous to create a need for rescue, can be brought quickly into action from the sky. With this, the helicopter brings unparalleled versatility to support emergency and disaster response compared to other aircraft types.
To better understand this critical operation and how the helicopter plays a significant role in saving lives, defining or linking the SAR mission, specific helicopter SAR tasks, and the capabilities they bear in such operations is vital to comprehend the importance of SAR and the helicopter fully.
First, what is SAR? The overarching mission of SAR is to locate, stabilise and extract individuals in distress. That can mean a hiker on the side of a mountain, a sailor lost at sea, a trapped urban disaster survivor, a captured soldier, or an Alzheimer’s patient wandering city streets. Each area of SAR employs techniques specific to the circumstance.
Specifically, search and rescue is an operation mounted by emergency services, often well-trained personnel, to find someone believed to be suffering, lost, sick, or injured either in a remote or difficult to access area, such as mountains, desert or forest, or at sea.
The field of Search and Rescue includes two entirely different types of operations. The first is strictly a military mission that demands potential flights into hostile areas, i.e., Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR). The second type involves supporting the civil sector in non-combat situations. For example, civil SAR might include rescuing the crews of overturned pleasure craft boats, highway tragedies, flood relief, skyscraper fires, aircraft crashes, etc.
Additionally, specialised sub-fields, typically determined by the type of terrain the search is conducted over, have their unique focus, capabilities, training, and deployment. Even though these specialised areas are defined or organised as such, many overlap in their efforts to save a person or persons in distress.
These sub-fields are defined as:
When it comes to helicopters in the world of SAR, hands-down helicopters are the ideal capability to support across the spectrum of SAR operations (or should I say sub-fields) the ability to be at the ‘right place’ at the ‘right time’. To achieve this, the SAR helicopter performs many specialised tasks that are distinctive compared to other SAR platforms.
Task & Techniques
So, what type of task or operations do SAR helicopter crews and systems perform? Overall, the SAR helicopter sector’s tasks vary from supporting a secondary role to conducting the actual search and physical extraction of a victim.
Not all SAR helicopters can accomplish all the different types of tasks. It depends on the mission, environmental conditions, capabilities of the helicopter (platform and equipment), and the type of training or certification the crew maintains. However, some of the main menu-board tasks or techniques SAR helicopters are utilised for, or conduct, is:
What kind of helicopters and equipment are used in SAR operations? First, helicopters are one of the most useful SAR platforms for many reasons:
The helicopter’s loud noise makes it challenging to communicate with the survivors and rescue teams. Additionally, the hovering helicopter’s strong downwash creates poor visibility conditions and produces Foreign Object Debris (FOD). Finally, compared to fixed-wing aircraft, and even though helicopters have adequate endurance, they tend to have limited range for serious over-the-horizon operations, e.g., extracting a seriously ill merchant ship sailor from their vessel in the middle of the Atlantic.
When it comes to the types of helicopters used in SAR operations, the SAR helicopter community generally selects aircraft with the range, flexibility, state-of-theart equipment, and capacity to meet their specific SAR mission.
In particular, a SAR aircraft must be capable of carrying payloads that can be excessive. They could be medical and airborne sensor equipment, injured personnel, and others. The aircraft should also fly to max distances and altitudes, primarily to deal with any unwelcome obstacles, distances, or conditions during the most challenging operation.
Moreover, the platform must also be swift and responsive in managing several different terrains during the operation, like mountainous, high sea conditions, and others. Based on this, the key aircraft flight parameters that meet these requirements are:
As mentioned before, today’s SAR helicopters, such as the traditional WS-61 Sea King, provide an enormous benefit in search and rescue missions where every minute and second counts. If you want to know what is flying today, here is a list of SAR helicopters that are operated around the world by both civilian and military organizations:
SAR helicopters, outfitted with the proper mission equipment, can perform their lifesaving tasks and techniques ten-fold. Because of specialised equipment and systems, the SAR missions can occur anywhere – mountains, desert, over water, urban areas, or the jungle. Weather, distance, time of day, and scenario are some of the factors that require the need for specialised SAR equipment.
Some of the standard types of capabilities you could find integrated into a SAR helicopter...
What is the professional profile of a SAR helicopter crew? Because there is a variety of SAR operations or tasks, there is a variety of professional skillsets and crew positions on a SAR helicopter.
For example, sea rescue operations require skilled ocean swimmers. Combat rescue uses Special Operation Forces (SOF) teams. Urban SAR requires hazardous material experts and structural specialists, and more.
However, some of the most common specialised SAR helicopter aircrew (other than a SAR Helicopter Pilot and depending on type platform) positions are:
Besides specialised training for the pre-mentioned specific aircrew positions, the common knowledge or training SAR helicopter crews are expected to have or acquire are:
Future of SAR Operations
What is the future for helicopters in SAR operations? Like the Aerial Work aviation sectors of Humanitarian Air Service or Air Ambulance, the need or demand will continue without question. The main changes currently trending into the future are who provides SAR helicopter services and what is used, i.e., kit to save lives.
Up to now, the private or commercial sector has had no significant role to play in SAR activities other than
regional volunteer groups conducting such support. Depending on the country, SAR operations are usually assigned to government organisations, i.e., military, interior ministry, or even the transportation department.
In the past few years, commercial Aerial Work service operators have begun performing these public service missions. This change is linked to developments in government budgetary constraints or operational bandwidth issues (e.g., “Sorry, we’re unavailable, we’re on deployment”) and in areas that are no longer covered by national emergency services (e.g., outside of jurisdiction). Therefore, private or commercial companies have stepped in to take over from or provide support to military and public safety organisations.
New innovative designs and technology are changing how SAR helicopter missions are being conducted when it comes to kit. More and more, either new capabilities are introduced to the community (e.g., Cellular Geolocation Systems, Wide-Area Motion Imagery (WAMI) systems, etc.) or significant improvements are made to the existing kit (e.g. utilising high-strength fiber components vs. metallic to save weight and effectiveness).
The bottom line is that the demand and technical improvements in the SAR helicopter sector continue. The lifesaving upshot, as mentioned before, is that the SAR helicopter community is only getting better.
As you can see, the helicopter is genuinely the leadingedge part in the Aerial Work aviation Search and Rescue sector. If you think about it, no other aircraft can (yet — if one things about emerging eVTOLs) meet the specialised or specific requirements of saving a stranded person on a snowy Alpine cliff within minutes or from a half-sunken ship far from shore in high seas conditions.
The helicopter’s unique capabilities and the perfect match of specialised integrated technology and highly trained aircrew members make this platform a potent force.
So, think about it, the SAR mission and the “Whop, Whop, Whop” of the helicopter are almost a perfect match made in heaven, OR from the perspective of that lost or injured person, it is a powerful sense of relief and hope!... “Thank You, I Now Have a Chance in Life!”