Late one night, not many years ago, we were delivering a patient to a large metropolitan medical complex. Since we were flying during the quiet hours after midnight, my highly experienced medical crew and I were enjoying the smooth winter air and sharp city skyline lightscape only offered up to helicopter occupants on rare occasions. We had made our standard radio calls, and had finished a routine safety reconnaissance overflight of the hospital helicopter deck and surrounding airspace. Just starting our final descent profile out of 300 feet AGL, however, my flight nurse and I caught a fleeting, blurred flash of unexpected fast movement in peripheral vision, darting under our chin bubble from an unexpected direction to our left. Almost as a remembered image remaining on the retina for only a moment, we realized that it was a small, darkly colored, unlighted helicopter shape. I arrested our descent and rolled in the direction the interloper seemed to have been flying, and was able to confirm that it was indeed a small, R22-type helicopter, proceeding away from the area at very low level, and that it showed no sign of changing course or altitude, presumably unaware of its proximity to the helicopter traffic density inherent with a medical activity center, and almost certainly oblivious to our particular presence.
During that period of helicopter history in our area we supported a very active locally organized helicopter pilot’s association, and our very next meeting began with a review of the importance of “talking among ourselves” on 123.025, our regularly observed “universal communications” helicopter air-to-air frequency, for the inarguably critical purpose of maximizing the chances of accomplishing safe helicopter traffic separation. We also revisited our association’s strong recommendation that casual helicopter traffic specifically avoid medical center overflights. Finally, we reviewed the importance of using all available recognition airframe lighting, and flying deliberate reconnaissance and approach patterns.
Things improved after that meeting, as we seemed to have some success in orchestrating a comfortable period during which helicopter traffic around our city behaved in orderly fashion, with the TV news aircraft observing a practically effective discipline in using airspace between 800 and 1000 feet AGL in their Class G activities, allowing EMS traffic to enter and exit accident scene zones at between 300 and 600 feet, and casual traffic steering clear of “hot” airspace altogether. Then, on one otherwise unremarkable evening, we were reminded that keeping helicopters separated from each other is apparently destined to continue as an ongoing challenge.
On this occasion it turned out that an alert flight nurse, spotting a collision threat during an approach into another major medical center, injected a perfectly delivered “Abort” call, and proved to be the integral component in the safety equation that should have been unnecessary if the radio call function had been fully in place. Meetings were once again held, aviation safety articles written, and procedures reviewed, and another long period of safe operations was produced, during which very good radio habits, accommodating both ATC and air-to-air requirements, seemed to be correctly observed. Ultimately, though, as a function of occasional less-than-pleasant reminders, we continue to be prompted to recognize that reliably safe helicopter separation, accomplished largely through the maintenance of good radio habits by all participants, continues to require constant attention and discipline. Just last month, while transporting a gravely injured patient, we and another EMS aircraft were advised by our dispatch authority that we were converging on a certain medical center complex, with similar estimated times of arrival. I advised the admirably alert dispatcher that we would arrange coordination by talking to each other, but it turns out that I was prematurely optimistic. I attempted several times to raise the other aircraft on 123.025, but was unsuccessful until he came up on frequency too late in his arrival to be effective.
Helicopter communities operating in most urban settings have done a good enough job providing their own air traffic separation that the freedom Mr. Sikorsky intended for the miracle of rotary wing flight has proceeded without compromise by mandatory canned routes and other infringements to efficiency, and without, by and large, disaster by collision. Let’s talk among ourselves and keep it that way.