By Mark Robins | November 20, 2017
The helicopter first demonstrated its superiority over conventional fixed-wing aircraft for search and rescue (SAR) missions during World War II in the jungles of Burma. The SAR rotorcraft equipment industry has changed since then and is continuing to evolve on a global scale. Most recently, many influential nations have ended government SAR operations and turned them over to private contractors. Additionally, professionals are being tasked to provide SAR/medevac coverage over longer areas to remote distances and even more inaccessible locations. What follows is how the SAR rotorcraft market has responded to these trends with essential equipment.
The U.K. was one of the first and most prominent nations to transfer SAR rotorcraft responsibilities to the private sector, specifically to Houston, Texas-based Bristow Helicopters. “The U.K. SAR helicopter service is delivered by Bristow Helicopters on behalf of Her Majesty’s Coastguard, so the state SAR service remains government responsibility,” said Russell Torbet, director of U.K. search and rescue at Bristow Helicopters. “Moving from military to commercial provision allowed the U.K. government to set a challenging technical specification for the contract, which would deliver capabilities not provided in the previous mixed military/civilian-provisioned helicopter service, set against demanding availability and response key performance indicators. Bristow has provided state-of-the-art SAR helicopters, which offer significant performance enhancements in terms of full all-weather SAR, with respect to speed, full icing protection, sensor fusion, electronic flight instrument system, full near vertical incidence skywave capability (NVIS), Satcom, datalink and modern avionics as well as the provision of medical equipment.”
Australia’s billion-dollar Coastwatch program has a similar privatization plan. If these transitions are successful, more countries could jump on the SAR privatization bandwagon. With the rise of SAR privatization, understandably, people are concerned about the new level of SAR quality being delivered.
But, Torbet said not to worry. Bristow helicopter crews are highly experienced in the SAR environment, with many joining directly from the military on transition to the commercial service. Mario Vittone, general manager of Lifesaving Systems Corp. in Apollo Beach, Florida, has witnessed this military migration, saying almost every private SAR operator he talks to is former military. “The transition has been easy serving the customers in that way, but with privatization there is a complete loss of autonomy in equipment selection that military operators enjoyed,” he cautioned. “When the military wants a piece of equipment, they set the requirements and purchase one that meets their specific needs.” But private operators operate under regulatory control from the FAA, EASA and CAA. “Far and away the largest problem is ‘certification’ of rescue equipment when no ‘certification’ exists,” he said. “For example, an operator subject to the FAA must use a ‘certified’ rescue litter during a helicopter hoist, but the FAA has no ‘standard’ for litters.”
Bob Cockell, VP of Air Rescue Systems in Ashland, Oregon, is part of a three-company team handling the military function for on-shore and deep offshore rescue for the Falkland Islands. “The motivation for SAR privatization is it costs less,” he said. “I believe because of the commercial requirements for the high level of performance and safety systems, ultimately you get a better system because it is driven by rules, regulations, safety policies and SOPs.”
Effect on SAR Equipment
Cockell contends privatization has brought a positive change in SAR equipment platforms. “The more demand there is for SAR privatization, the more it is driving equipment,” he said. “We went from old technology to the latest and best in what is out there: the greatest avionic suites and technical capabilities.”
The industry, he said, is driving new technology in hoists. “We work a lot with Goodrich, and its next-generation hoist technology is driven by direct input by the end users on speed, capabilities, endurance and even cable length,” he added.
Changes in hoist design are being driven by both regulatory influence as well as technology improvements. The latest designs include higher protection from electromagnetic interference and lightning, improved harness durability, cable mis-wrap detection, improved cable payout sensors and other design improvements aimed at increasing overall reliability of the system.
Additionally, “future improvements in hoists will include a higher level of overload protection, cable material and strength improvements, health and usage monitoring, improvements in corrosion protection and video recording,” said Nick Demogines, associate director of business development of hoist and winch at UTC Aerospace Systems. “Finally, there has been an increase in dual-hoist aircraft being used for search and rescue operations, where operators have contracts in place to provide search and rescue services on a 24/7 basis. The dual hoists allow them to maintain their level of availability, introducing a redundant component in the event a hoist becomes inoperable during a rescue.”
Torbet says it was Bristow that pioneered the dual hoist in response to the loss of a crewman. Dual hoists “have significantly improved the safety of winchman operations,” Torbet said. “Dual hoists offer greatly enhanced safety during rescues in situations where wind and terrain conditions are extremely challenging.”
Reaching Remote Rescue
Wind and terrain conditions are challenging, but another challenge for SAR coverage is remote and inaccessible locations. Cockell said that in addition to privatization, the need to provide SAR to remote locations like offshore oil platforms, has indirectly led to SAR equipment improvements, such as those with the dual hoist. “The rotorcraft we are running now has a dual hoist: an in-board and out-board,” he said. “When you have a problem with one, you can immediately deploy the second. When you are 200 nm offshore, you don’t have the concern of a double failure.”
Hoists are being used for more than just SAR. Demogines noted how they are becoming integral to offshore and wind-farm operations, harbor pilot transfers and power-line maintenance. “For search and rescue operations, contracts are now requiring 24/7 support, which is driving a higher level of reliability in hoist designs, as well as dual-hoist designs for redundancy. … As operators and users spend more time on the cable compared to historical SAR operations, regulatory agencies have enacted higher requirements for human external cargo.”
Same strength and half the weight: that’s how Cockell sees SAR equipment being modified for remote locations. “New technologies and lighter materials,” he said. “How do we reduce the weight of our systems and devices? Simplify these components down to basic functionality.”
Brad Matheson, president of Priority 1 Air Rescue, agrees that a significant restriction for helicopter SAR operators is not only weight, but also space. He believes the overall weight of the aircraft will directly affect how many survivors can be transported, the hover performance required from the helicopter to conduct hoisting operations, and/or the range and distance it can operate and perform rescues.
“Utilizing lighter weight materials in place of stainless steel — for instance using aluminum alloy for carabiners and titanium for litters — can reduce the weight of SAR equipment kits to allow for more fuel capacity or helicopter performance,” Matheson said. “Additionally, using patient extrication platforms bags fabricated from Cordura and nylon webbing to lift patients packaged on spine boards or scoop stretchers are allowing crews to replace the stokes litter altogether.”
Adam DeAngelis, director of marketing-surveillance at FLIR Systems Inc., said his company has seen an increased demand to provide sensors that include superior technology and maintain performance and reliability, yet allow for the smaller form factors that decrease the weight and drag of the aircraft. “This must be balanced with performance requirements of the mission,” he added.
Houston, Texas-based Era Group offers 24-hour, offshore advanced life support medical care and has responded to more than 1,050 emergency calls from more than 70 companies in the Gulf of Mexico.
To support the remote locations of offshore oil and gas companies, Era utilizes Leonardo AW139 helicopters, enhanced ground proximity warning systems (EGPWS), 100% satellite tracking, NVIS and forward-looking infrared systems, dual hoists and fully integrated auto hover and search pattern autopilot modes.
Privatization Produces Innovation
Essential SAR rotorcraft equipment has gone high tech. Kim Harris, director of business development and sales for night-vision imaging systems and senior instructor/evaluator at ATP/CFII and Aviation Specialties Unlimited believes SAR fleets are being modernized either with new production aircraft or technical updates to existing aircraft.
“NVIS capability is one aspect that is becoming much more common,” she said. “For decades now, the U.S. Coast Guard has benefited from the increased safety and situational awareness that night-vision goggles (NVG) provide. Private organizations may already have NVIS qualified operators, and initiating NVIS SAR can be a smaller step with less impact to the structure of an organization with a number of experienced NVIS crew already available internally.”
Torbet cited advanced sensor technologies, sensor fusion within the aircraft platform, development of data-transfer capabilities, and enhanced platform performance in terms of range and payload as essential equipment. “HD video, military-grade NVGs, EGPWS, traffic collision avoidance system II, and light detection and ranging are all examples of equipment designed to enhance situational awareness for those engaged in SAR helicopter activities,” he added.
SAR missions happen when environmental conditions are at their worst. “Multi-spectral, all-weather capability imaging solutions are essential for the safety of the crew and the safety of those who are being rescued,” DeAngelis said. “People don’t get lost when it’s bright and sunny, having thermal, short wave IR, color and NVG sensors is essential to quickly picking out a target in these adverse conditions.”
Key to successful rotorcraft SAR is radio connectivity to help crews communicate with tasking agencies, rescue coordination centers, care facilities and dispatchers. “Longer-range and remote SAR usage has led to an increased importance of beyond line of sight communications using multi-band radios, satellite phone systems, and video/telemetry uplink and downlink capabilities,” said Ian McLuskie, senior manager of business development of search and rescue at CHC Helicopter. “Importantly, satellite-enabled communication and aircraft tracking systems allow real-time operational flight following with globally reliable communication and survivor location through systems such as Cospas-Sarsat 406 MHz distress signals and multi-channel homing devices.”
Looking to the future, SAR rotorcraft equipment will attain higher standards, both from a regulatory standpoint and technology improvements. Ultimately, this will enhance speed of response and speed to remote locations, and reduce the time taken to successfully deliver those in need to a place of safety.