The Leading Edge of Search & Rescue Operations: Aerial Work Helicopters

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.

Patrick Ryan  |  10th November 2021
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    The Leading Edge of  Search & Rescue Operations: AERIAL WORK HELICOPTE

    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: 

    • Mountain Rescue 
    • Land Search and Rescue / Wilderness Search and 
    • Rescue 
    • Urban/Suburban Search and Rescue 
    • Air-Sea Rescue / Maritime Search and Rescue 
    • Air Search and Rescue 

    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:


    • Scouting or Reconnaissance – Access the conditions of search areas. 
    • Information or Intelligence – Collect and provide an aerial view to inform and improve ground/sealevel searches or accessing stranded individuals. 
    • Command & Control – Directing SAR operations on-site. 
    • SAR Team Transportation – Airlifting SAR ground or sea personnel and equipment to the incident area. 


    • Hasty Search - Move quickly through the search area, at slow speeds, to check cliffs, wells, tangle hazards, caves, sea oil spills, last know locations, etc. 
    • Grid Search – Methodically searching an area using a coordinate system of boxes defined by Latitude/longitude or UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) coordinates, i.e., carefully looking for the victim, victims, or clues to their whereabouts. 
    • Choke Point Search – Maintaining constant search or observation of a geographical choke point where a victim has a high probability of crossing if mobile, e.g., a large river with a bridge crossing, etc. 


    • Specialised Landings – Conduct high-risk landings such as Slop Landings, One-Skid Landings, Toe-In Landings, Hover Landings, and Power-On Landing. 
    • Specialized Aerial Assistance & Extraction Rescues – Perform insertion or extraction of rescuers and victims utilizing Hoisting, Rappelling, and Short-Haul (suspended on a line and transported to a safe landing zone.) operations or techniques. 
    • Casualty or Victim Transportation - Providing effective medical care to a rescued victim while transporting to a relay MEDEVAC aircraft or other medical support facilities/teams. 


    What kind of helicopters and equipment are used in SAR operations? First, helicopters are one of the most useful SAR platforms for many reasons: 

    • Agility – SAR helicopter's variable speed and ability to hover make them the most effective platform for targeting smaller areas and performing close-up operations over land and water obstacles. 
    • Reach – SAR helicopter's ability to land in remote places and operate from ships enables them to aid survivors long before ground or maritime units arrive. In addition, their size, power, and responsiveness mean they can operate well in potentially risky locations, such as high altitudes, high temperatures, and elevated atmospheric pressure environments. 
    • Endurance – SAR helicopters can fly for several hours and hundreds of miles at a time, so they can cover regional distances quickly and perform hours of rescue operations without needing to refuel. 
    • Ruggedness – SAR helicopters are designed to brave the elements and remain stable in heavy crosswinds and moderately threatening climates. 
    • Capacity – SAR helicopters are capable of carrying thousands of pounds of food, water, and supplies. 
    • Advanced – SAR helicopters are typically outfitted with the necessary avionics, sensors, and equipment to support effective search and rescue and recovery operations. 


    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. 

    SAR Platforms

    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: 

    • Maximum takeoff gross weight 
    • Range 
    • Ceiling 
    • Maximum speed 
    • Rate of climb 

    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: 

    Light-Weight Helicopters:

    • Airbus H145 
    • AgustaWestland AW109 
    • Airbus MH-65 Dolphin 
    • Sikorsky S-76 
    • Bell CH-146 Griffon 

    Medium-Weight Helicopters: 

    • Airbus H175 
    • Sikorsky S-70 
    • AgustaWestland AW189 

    Heavy-Weight Helicopters:

    • Airbus H225 Super Puma 
    • Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low


    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...


    • Search Light 
    • Loud Speaker 
    • Rescue Hoist 
    • Fast Rope Insertion/Extraction System 
    • Rescue Strop 
    • Litter and Rescue Bag 
    • Rescue Basket 
    • Stretcher/Emergency Medical Kits 


    • Weather Radar 
    • Auto-Hover 
    • Night Vision Devices/Goggles 
    • Electrical-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) Camera Sensors 
    • Specialized Mission Management & Navigation Systems 
    • Cellular Geolocation System 

    SAR Team

    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: 

    • SAR Flight Engineer/Mechanic 
    • SAR Technician - Observer 
    • SAR Technician – Hoist Operator  
    • SAR Technician – Medic 
    • SAR Technician – Airborne Sensor Operator 
    • SAR Technician - Swimmer 

    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: 

    • Helicopter Safety/Crew Resource Management  (CRM) 
    • Helicopter Ground Handling (e.g., refueling,  marshaling, etc.) 
    • Helicopter Emergency and Crash Procedures (To  include underwater egress training) 
    • SAR Management Programs and Processes (e.g.,  Command & Control, Regulations, Policy, etc.) 
    • Specialization in SAR Sub-Fields (e.g., Mountain  Rescue, Urban Rescue, etc.) 
    • Specialization in SAR Tactics, Techniques, and  Procedures (e.g., Search Techniques, Air-Ground Communications, Extraction Methods, etc.)

    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!”

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