Commercial, Military, Regulatory

On Watch Over the North Sea

By Wim Das and Kees Otten | February 1, 2007

HALF SURROUNDED BY WATER, THE NETHERLANDS often has to deal with rough seas and the dangers that they pose to its citizens and visitors.

Given that nation’s large fishing industry, its professional and volunteer rescuers are frequently called on to aid fishermen in trouble aboard vessels that have broken down or foundered. Given the extent of oil and gas exploration and production in the North Sea, those rescuers must always be ready to assist crews on offshore rigs or transiting to and from them in an emergency situation. Likewise, as a seafaring nation, many of its citizens and tourists are attracted to leisure activities on the water. Some of them may not be fully prepared for or appreciative of the potential hazards.

It is not unusual, when members of one of those groups (or others) find themselves in distress, for civil and military helicopter organizations to come together to work jointly on a rescue operation.


Airborne search-and-rescue (SAR) missions over the Netherlands’ and adjacent international waters long were traditionally flown by the AgustaWestland Lynx helicopters of the Royal Dutch Navy, which are designated SH-14Ds. That began to change after Dec. 20, 1997.

On that date, a Sikorsky S-76B operated by KLM ERA Helicopters was shuttling among rigs and platforms in the K5 and Pentacon field areas of the North Sea. On the fifth sortie, after sunset and in nighttime conditions, the S-76’s final approach to Production Platform L7-A resulted in a go-around.

The pilot made a left turn and started a second approach. After the pilot reduced power to lose altitude and speed in a relatively short time, according to the Dutch Safety Board, the helicopter lost almost all forward speed and entered a steep descent towards the sea.

The safety board said the pilot realized this too late; he applied collective but could not prevent the helicopter from hitting the water. The crew and passengers evacuated the helicopter. After about 1 hr in the water, they were picked up by a supply vessel. In that time, one passenger died.

The crash raised the prospect of a bigger loss of life if, for example, an S-61-size aircraft put 20 or so people in the North Sea for more than an hour. The Dutch Safety Board called on the Dutch agency overseeing offshore operations and the coast guard to revise the organization, availability and use of rescue assets "to minimize the immersion time of survivors in the seawater after a crash on the continental shelf."

That led to Bristow Helicopters being approached to provide a helicopter capable of rescuing a large number of victims in an offshore emergency. Bristow is among those companies experienced in servicing offshore rigs and providing SAR capability. Bristow helicopters transport offshore crews from Aberdeen and Norwich in the United Kingdom and Den Helder, about 30 mi (50 km) north-northeast of Amsterdam. Today, Bristow provides SAR coverage of the southern North Sea with a Eurocopter Super Puma permanently stationed at Den Helder Airport. The aircraft carries the appropriate registration G-JSAR.

The Royal Dutch Navy’s Lynx have accumulated an impressive record in their SAR coverage of the Netherlands’ waters. A plaque at the entrance of the headquarters of 7th Sqdn., which flies the SH-14Ds, puts the number of lives saved at 2,000. The squadron, which began as a fixed-wing unit and was reformed flying the Agusta/Bell AB-204B before it transitioned to the Lynx in 1978, is based at De Kooy, near Den Helder.

Lynx SAR crews are on duty around the clock all year, and the navy aims for a Lynx to be airborne within 20 min during the day, within 45 min in the evening, and within 60 min at night. A Navy SAR team on this aircraft is made up of as many as five crewmembers, including the two pilots. In the cabin, you normally find the winch man, or rescue specialist, who is lowered on the hoist to the victims, and the hoist operator. When needed, a doctor may join the crew. In the Lynx, a maximum of three extra persons can be taken along.

Requests for assistance come to the navy through the Dutch coast guard, which identifies whether Bristow’s aircraft or a navy unit on alert is closest to the emergency site. Both SAR operators consult closely with each other, and often pick up a mission if the other’s helicopter is forced out of service. While the navy has several helicopters, Bristow has only the one bird, but it is a much larger helicopter.

Much is asked of a SAR crew, whose members must learn to make quick, sound decisions about the steps needed to rescue those who called for help. This requires good insight into the capabilities of the aircraft and your crew mates, excellent communication skills among the crew, and most importantly a blind trust in yourself and your colleagues. Very often courage is required because circumstances on the scene can be far from ideal; some rescue scenarios simply can’t be replicated in training.

Once a SAR crew is in action, the mission can become a game of possibilities. All techniques are used to search for victims — by radio, visual searches, searchlight, forward-looking infrared (flir) in the darkness, and more and more by satellite-based personal locator beacons.

As a SAR pilot, you often use your instincts concerning where your victims could be, taking into account all factors. Once in contact with a victim, you must assess what possibilities you have. If the mission concerns a ship, then generally first the rescue specialist must be hoisted aboard, followed by the doctor and his medical kit. This can be a problem in itself. In rough seas, waves can wash over your crewmembers and their gear, so the doctor’s kit must be watertight.

Once your crewmembers are on the ship, the decision must be made whether to work to stabilize any victims requiring medical care aboard the ship or in the helicopter. This depends again on the circumstances. A victim may require immediate stabilization that cannot be achieved on the ship, given the weather and sea conditions. In that case, the decision may have to be made to delay medical care until the victim can be secured and hoisted to the helicopter. Such decisions can, in reality, be life-and-death ones. But the crew must do what is best for both the victims and its own members.

In some cases, the ship may be battered by extreme winds. Especially if masts are swinging as the ship pitches and rolls with the waves, a normal hoist may be impossible. In such cases, the Dutch use a technique in which they lower a 110-lb (50-kg) bag of sand to the ship’s deck that is then used to maneuver the hoist cable. This makes it possible to hoist persons at a certain angle up or down stairs. This method is called "high-line" or "heaving in."

(Waves can be a direct hazard to a helicopter. In January 2005, a U.S. Coast Guard HH-60J Jayhawk from CGAS Kodiak, Alaska was downed by a wave while hovering to rescue the last eight of 26 crewmembers on a foundering Malaysian-flagged freighter.)

After a number of people from the Dorus Rijkers were hoisted to the helicopter, brought on board, and sent down again, we had to return to it. We were glad to be on board the relatively steady helicopter again.

If victims need immediate extensive medical aid, the helicopter may depart the scene directly to a hospital. A severely burned victim, for instance, may be flown to a burn center. Those in need of less urgent care may be flown to an offshore platform to allow more time for rescuing others. The helicopter can also refuel on a platform.

All rescue actions are later reviewed during a mission debriefing, which can lead to better decision-making and the use of improved techniques on subsequent missions.

Bristow was tapped to provide the SAR services by the Netherlands Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Assn. (NOGEPA).

The company flies many full shuttle services between Den Helder and offshore platforms, especially between 0700-0900 and 1700-1900. Safety training is a requirement for offshore workers, specifically in how to react on board a helicopter that goes down in the sea. Helicopter Underwater Egress Training teaches workers the critical steps for freeing yourself from your seat and getting yourself oriented to the best escape route (given that you may be upside down or at another unusual attitude and submerged in a sinking aircraft). Offshore workers flying to and from platforms are also required to wear layered, thermal clothing for short-term thermal protection in cold seawater, as well as life vests jackets.

The standard for offshore operations is that a person must not be permitted to stay longer than 2 hr in the sea. Rescue assets must be available to ensure they are rescued within that time. Bristow’s SAR crews train regularly with dummies to demonstrate their ability to hoist 21 people within 30 min of when the hoisting starts and to recover that number and transport them to a safe location, like an oil rig, within 2 hr of when the distress call was received. With the helicopter hovering at 40 ft (12 m), it is standard for each victim to spend only 20 sec on the hoist.

Bristow’s Super Puma and crew stay on an alert status enabling a launch from Den Helder within 15 min of a distress call from 0730 to 2100. At night, the standard is to be airborne within 60 min of the call.

While the coast guard can call upon either the navy or Bristow, in cases of large-scale emergencies G-JSAR will certainly be part of the action. In 2005, the Super Pumas launched on 55 missions.

That helicopter has many possibilities. Its wide cabin permits carriage of a large amount of medical gear, with medical appliances stowed in cabinets there. Intravenous lines can be hung; the aircraft also carries a cardiac defibrillator, on-board oxygen and patient-ventilation equipment.

The difference between an emergency medical service (EMS) helicopter and a SAR one is that the first brings a trauma team to the accident while the second brings victims to the trauma team. Bristow’s crewmembers have all had advanced trauma life support training, which is standard in the Netherlands. That training tends to be more stringent than in other European countries.

The Super Puma is equipped with a glass cockpit. Its flight management system uses GPS and inertial navigation, as well as a four-axis autopilot. As soon as a crewmember on a mission spots someone in need of rescue, the call "Now-Now-Now" is shouted. With one button, the pilot puts the aircraft into an orbit around that location. That allows all four crewmembers to assess the situation. Hovering is typically done at a 40-ft altitude, but can be done at any height.

The Super Puma is the only SAR helicopter in the Netherlands equipped with both a hydraulic and an electric hoist. The aircraft can lift two men at the same time on one hoist, with a weight-on-cable limit of 605 lb (275 kg). The Super Puma’s flir can view 360 deg, and crewmembers are trained in the use of night-vision goggles. The aircraft has two video cameras, one on the flir and one focused on the hoist cable, which are used after a mission for debriefing purposes. Its NightSun searchlight is very strong and should not be pointed directly on the victims at too close a range. A speaker permits crewmembers to communicate with those to be rescued and pass on instructions. The aircraft also has a strong siren.

The winch operator can control the autopilot from the cabin and navigate by GPS. Crewmembers in the cabin can view the flir image. Two lamps are aimed at the main-rotor tips to make them clear in obscure weather.

On SAR missions, the crews typically communicate with the Royal Dutch Rescue Society (known by the Dutch abbreviation KNRM), a volunteer group that mans rescue boats along the nation’s coast.

Missions are flown under visual and instrument flight rules. Once airborne and cleared by air traffic control on a VHF channel, the crew will contact the coast guard by UHF radio for additional information on the mission and the number, location, and status of the victims. Depending on the location of the rescue, the crew may also contact U.K. or Danish ATC.

While we had flown navy Lynx crews, we gladly accepted an invitation to fly on G-JSAR with Capt. Marjolijn de Greef and Capt. Patrick van der Voort.

After a short introduction to the winch over land at about 30 ft (10 m) high by winch operator Pete Mesney, we flew to the Marsdiep channel between Den Helder and Texel for an exercise with the rescue boat Dorus Rijkers from the KNRM’s Den Helder station.

We circled the boat a couple of times at the Dorus Rijkers’s top speed, then took a fast turn and flew above and abeam it, again at top speed, giving the exercise a nice, "007 James Bond" quality. Mesney opened the cabin door and lowered rescue specialist Michael Bes to the lifesaving boat. Then Mesney’s thumb went up. One by one, we replied with the same signal and within seconds we were each pulled by the hoist cable out of the helicopter and lowered toward the cold, salty sea. In short order, we each found ourselves at the end of a long steel cable, approaching the 30-ft-long rescue boat in rough seas. At that moment your only thought is: "So, that’s it. This is what it is all about."

Before you realize it, Bes has grabbed your ankles and you stand on the boat’s deck. You feel like you are watching a movie, without emotion. Other feelings follow when you hit the deck if you are swung backwards, forwards and sidewards or if you have to remain on board, shuffling along the side of the small boat from aft to fore in stiff winds. From time to time, the boat’s lurching lifts you completely off the deck and waves wash over your body and gear.

After a number of people from the Dorus Rijkers were hoisted to the helicopter, brought on board, and sent down again, we had to return to it. We were glad to be on board the relatively steady helicopter again, thoroughly impressed with the teamwork and absolutely convinced that we were in safe hands. We then headed back to Den Helder.

Should it ever be necessary that you need the services of these people and these kinds of organizations, know that they are very competent people who come to get and care for you. That goes not only for the Netherlands, but we guess for all those motivated crews of such organizations in all countries. The story comes to mind that de Greef had her first rescue with the G-JSAR Super Puma. With a navy doctor on board, they went out to help a fisherman whose arm got stuck in the ship’s hoisting-installation. His life was saved by the doctor and the fast transport to a hospital by the helicopter. Many times this type of work is done around the world.

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