SAR. Search and rescue by helicopter. They say it all started in April 1944 when a Sikorsky R-4 helicopter rescued four airmen from the Burma jungle. That was a military application and the airborne SAR mission remained a military/government operation for many years. Let’s fast forward to the here and now.
Over the United States’ land mass, the military still retains its internal SAR responsibilities with the U.S. Air Force tagged as its leading agency. The only military/government involvement of SAR, in the civilian sphere, was through the U.S. Coast Guard. On the civil side, and new to the mix, is the local government, in the form of firefighters and law enforcement agencies and this is due to the inclusion of aviation in their arsenals for civil protection of the population. I’d add here that none of the above is a 100 percent dedicated SAR operation, USAF excluded. (More on that later.)
This month’s column is about Era Helicopters, located in Lake Charles, La., and its SAR operations. Paul White, Era’s vice president and manager for the Gulf of Mexico, briefed me on Era’s SAR capabilities. The company has two AgustaWestland AW139s dedicated 100 percent to search and rescue operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Era’s SAR division operates as a business arm just like every other Era company, similar to its EMS and firefighting business. One might ask, how do you make money for search and rescue?
Wind the clock back to April 20, 2010. In response to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, numerous investigations determined that some safe practices could be improved upon. One proposed improvement was a written detailed emergency plan in the event of a catastrophe of this magnitude that would allow for evacuation and immediate medical attention for injured personnel. Major oil companies took note of this omission and discovered that a dedicated SAR aircraft would be a good fit for their safety planning. As an example, there is at least one oil company that requires that any injured person be evacuated within four hours to a hospital destination. A helicopter is the only means for filling that requirement. Era has filled that need with the SAR AW139.
To help meet the “what if” requirements, Era sought out major companies that would be willing to pay a subscription price to have a dedicated SAR aircraft available 24/7 to cover any disaster or injury in the offshore environment. The company has been very successful in obtaining contracts for the aircraft. Era’s two SAR helicopters have full category A performance without limitations, are equipped with dual core hoists and a complete life support system available for use by the medic, HUMS and FDM, FMS, weather/search radar, EGPWS, TCAS, searchlight, night vision goggles, Honeywell communications suite and marine radio, and a lot more goodies.
Pilot selection is a process of finding people who have broad skill sets. Many pilots are former military who have experience in Navy or Coast Guard SAR. In addition to doing Part 135 recurrent training, they must undergo continuous training in hoist operations, NVG, night operations, crew coordination and a host of related topics. They train 50 hours per month with a lot of time in the simulator. Three crewmembers fill the back of the helicopter. They include a hoist operator, a fully qualified life support paramedic and a rescue diver. Era contracts with Priority 1 Air Rescue out of Mesa, Ariz. to staff these positions. The majority of staff are ex-Coast Guard experienced personnel and are trained and led by Bob Watson, who portrays himself with Kevin Costner in the film, The Guardian. Watson routinely flies on Era SAR missions.
I mentioned earlier about being 100 percent SAR dedicated. The USAF does have one or more dedicated squadrons of SAR aircraft used for military purposes. Since USCG has been put under Homeland Security, it has been tasked with many activities such as law enforcement, environmental inspection and enforcement and drug interdiction. USCG readily admits Homeland Security is their primary mission, but still responds to maritime emergencies providing it has assets available. USCG does not have the capabilities of Era’s AW139s and the civil government agencies do not have the helicopters and crews capable of matching Era’s complete package. USCG is happy to have the civil SAR units in the Gulf of Mexico.
Statistically, Era’s SAR operation completed 111 missions in the gulf during 2011. A total of 12 percent involved hoist requirements (two were vessels) and 45 percent were life-critical where expeditious hospitalization was required. Sixty different oil companies used this service and not all of them were contract members. White believes his business model for SAR is viable and Era will be seeing increased demand for the service.