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The Different Faces of SAR Training

By By Charlotte Adams | November 1, 2009
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Priority 1 considers cross training, crew interoperability and teamwork as fundamental to its Class D basic hoist rescue course.


Search and rescue (SAR) is a crowded arena with many players—from the U.S. military and Coast Guard (USCG) to local police and fire departments. These organizations vary widely, and their training reflects that, though there is a common thread running through it all. Rotor & Wing looked at helicopter pilot training for combat SAR (CSAR) pilots in the Air Force, maritime rescue pilots and planners in the Coast Guard, and civilian pilots and crews in two non-military schools.


With the widest areas of responsibility, the largest forces and the most money, though of course never enough, the Air Force and Coast Guard have the most comprehensive and longest programs. The civilian schools, which serve a wide array of customers, offer broad menus of courses. Instructors, who are often military or Coast Guard alumni, can offer high-quality training but in more bite-sized pieces.

Air Force

Incoming HH-60G students at the USAF’s CSAR school, Kirtland AFB, N.M., arrive already qualified as helicopter pilots through basic training at Fort Rucker, Ala. Those transitioning to Pave Hawks spend four to six months in classroom, simulator and flight training, explained Capt. John Brunner, an instructor pilot and senior evaluator with the 58th Special Operations Wing, which trains both CSAR and special operations pilots.

After qualifying in their mission aircraft, students get instruction in day and night SAR techniques in non-tactical and tactical environments. Non-tactical instruction includes search patterns, landing zone operations and recovery of a person if the helicopter can’t land. It also covers power management for the high gross weights at which the HH-60G normally operates. Students learn how to use aircraft data systems and the radar in search modes, how to operate with the other members of the air crew as a single unit and how to plan missions. For reasons of economy and efficiency, most of the non-tactical pilot training is done in simulators.

Tactical training includes the use of night vision goggles (NVGs), low-level flight, and command and control in single- and multi-ship exercises. Two single-ship day flights introduce aircraft handling techniques and low-level tactical flight profiles. Three dual-ship, daytime formation flights introduce students to multi-ship operations, wingman considerations and defensive maneuvers.

There are also two single-ship night flights and three night flights in two-ship formations, as well as two nighttime helicopter aerial refueling sorties. Tactical training culminates with a mission checkride—a multi-ship night flight with a deep penetration scenario. This covers everything from mission planning to return to base in a simulated low-to-medium threat environment. The aerial refueling checkride is considered part of the mission checkride but may be executed separately, depending on tanker availability.

In parallel courses, air crews learn how to use multiple types of rescue equipment, including the military equivalent of a Stokes litter and plastic rollout stretchers. The flight engineer is also trained to operate the Pave Hawk’s built-in external hoist and in other techniques, such as fast ropes, rope ladders and rappelling. Crews also learn to operate their weapons. Pilots and crews fly some flights together and are trained to operate in mountainous, desert, maritime and forested environments.

Coast Guard

Hoist training from Mesa, Ariz.-based Priority 1 ranges from the basic course to more specialized learning, including for SAR, mountainous terrain, maritime vessel, high-rise building and swiftwater rescue operations.

Although SAR is a major Coast Guard mission, the USCG does not have a dedicated SAR flight school. Student pilots take basic training with the Navy and Marine Corps in Pensacola, Fla., and transition training at the Coast Guard’s Aviation Training Center (ATC) in Mobile, Ala. While the transition course includes some instruction in SAR techniques and concepts, the focus is on training good safety pilots, according to Cdr. Pete Mingo, chief of the Training division at Mobile.

The HH-60/HH-65 transition course takes 6–7 weeks, including 2–3 weeks of classroom and procedures trainer work, about one week with flight simulators and 2–3 weeks of flight training. Students graduate as copilots.

ATC Mobile introduces SAR techniques through scenario-based simulator training. One example could be a flare sighting 20 miles south of Mobile. While the student is en route, instructors insert emergencies, so that students gradually learn to handle overwater emergencies in every phase of flight.

Students are introduced to sector, parallel, creeping line and expanding square patterns as part of learning to operate the flight management system. They also get some daytime hoist training. But most SAR experience occurs at the unit level as part of on-the-job training.

One-week-long recurrent training takes place every 12–15 months through lectures and 4–5 multi-scenario simulator sessions. In a medevac scenario, for example, a pilot might fly from the USCG Air Station at Cape Cod, Mass., to pick up a patient at Martha’s Vineyard and bring the patient back to Massachusetts General hospital. The instructor can insert bad weather, an instrument approach and various emergencies.

In other scenarios the rescue mission is inserted on the fly, which is more true to life, Mingo said. Pilots often get assigned missions when they are performing patrols. The pilot makes a regular call to base, for example, and hears a report of a boat taking on water.

SRT Helicopters stresses training the whole crew and coined the term, total resource management. TRM emphasizes using all information to anticipate conditions and mentally prepare for the mission. SRT provides two hoist operator instructors and two pilot instructors, with operational experience in the aircraft they cover, for each engagement. The hoist instructor doubles as a ground safety instructor.

The instructors at Mobile also conduct in-person proficiency checks on as many pilots as possible each year. On these checkrides, pilots have to demonstrate the ability to operate the aircraft safely and to do SAR plans and procedures, pattern work and overwater approaches. The Mobile staff typically gets to 85–90 percent of Coast Guard pilots. The remaining pilots are checked by instructors at their local units.

Copilots also need to take the Search Coordination & Execution (SC&E) course offered as outreach by the USCG’s National SAR School in Yorktown, Va., or the online SAR Fundamentals course to qualify as aircraft commanders. The four-day SC&E course covers the on-scene coordination and execution of the SAR controller’s search plan. Graduates are expected to be able to act as the controller’s “eyes and ears,” maintain contact with each rescue unit on the scene and track progress, said Chris White, a master training specialist. If they are designated as on-scene coordinators, they will ensure that the search plan is correctly executed. Because SAR missions may involve close interaction with state and local agencies, the SC&E course is often attended by outside maritime agencies such as state marine police and waterfront fire departments.

Civilian Schools

Civilian schools contacted by Rotor & Wing offer a wide range of courses in SAR techniques, with team-oriented hoist operations at the core. SRT Helicopters’ Hoist Course averages 1.5 days of ground school and 8 to 8.5 days of work in the helicopter, according to Chris Gadbois, president and CEO of the Bakersfield, Calif.-based company. SRT has devised a simple hoist simulator to practice phraseology, hand signals and crew coordination. The simulator allows students to get “pretty solid” on these items, Gadbois said. “If they mess up on the checklist or get the phraseology wrong in the airplane, it costs them a quarter or a soda.”

SRT stresses training the whole crew and coined the term, total resource management. TRM emphasizes using every bit of information you can lay hands on from the time you get up in the morning to anticipate conditions and mentally prepare for the day ahead. SRT usually provides two hoist operator instructors and two pilot instructors—with operational experience in the aircraft they cover—for each engagement. The hoist instructor doubles as a ground safety instructor. Night hoist training is a separate course running from five to 10 days, depending on the number of pilots and their skills. The night course goes more into flight physiology, Gadbois said. For the pilots the course emphasizes instrument flight skills. They practice going from aided to unaided vision in the middle of a hoist operation, for example, simulating NVG failure or loss of reference. They also do instrument takeoffs under brownout or whiteout conditions. “If they’re not already instrument-proficient, they will be by the time we’re done,” he said. Pilots also practice aircraft emergency procedures, such as hydraulic system failure.

SRT emphasizes its customized approach. “We do a risk assessment of everybody we train as part of how we decide how we’re going to train and how to do business,” Gadbois said. Pilots, for example, are asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding how many hours they’ve flown, for which aircraft and on what missions.

SRT also offers a SAR planning course which can run from three days to three weeks, depending on how much the operator wants to cover. This can include detailed SAR patterns and training on how to operate with other SAR entities. One operator who took hoist training from SRT was the Baltimore County Police aviation unit. One of the things SRT stressed was the organization’s ability to work together with ground rescue personnel in the local fire department. According to Gadbois, interoperability includes common communication, equipment and procedures that are well defined before the unit becomes operational. The Baltimore County Police acknowledge the benefit of closer coordination with the fire department. Fire department members were brought in on the initial ground school and also joined the aviation unit in most of the training events, said Sgt. Ron Wines, aviation commander.

Progression of SRT Helicopters images shows a hoist training exercise, from course work in the classroom to preparing for the helicopter to arrive, to the actual hoist operation.

The approach paid off immediately, when the aviation unit and the fire department crew it trained with rescued an injured hiker. The two organizations also held a joint hurricane awareness exercise. During training, the police unit’s Eurocopter AS350B3 AStars were outfitted with dual controls. That way, the SRT pilot instructor, who had some experience on the AStar, could demonstrate or correct a maneuver, Wines said.

Priority 1

Priority 1 Air Rescue, Mesa, Ariz., also offers a wide range of training courses and focuses on pilot/aircrew integration. The company has rescue hoist system operators and SAR pilot instructors, which provide initial and advanced Part 133 Class D training courses for customers in more than 15 helicopter types including Bell, Eurocopter, MD Helicopters and Sikorsky, according to Mark Torres, director of operations.

Successful rescue hoisting is built on cross training, crew interoperability and teamwork—the Class D Basic Hoist Rescue course is the foundation that customers build upon, Torres explained. This course involves two days of ground training and four days of flight training. The flight portion includes tasks such as inserting and extracting the rescue specialist over land. Hoist-related emergency procedures include events such as loss of hoist power, loss of hoist hydraulics, cable oscillations and cable/hoist stoppage. The course concludes with realistic and challenging SAR mission flight simulations.

Priority 1 also offers a SAR Planning course that, among other things, includes search patterns and a template for pilots of questions they need to ask when a call for help comes in. The advanced Class D Hoist Rescue Training courses covers more complex rescues in more difficult environments such as mountainous terrain, vertical cliffs, high-rise buildings, swiftwater, open ocean and maritime vessel scenarios. Night hoisting training with NVGs is also available. Torres points to Priority 1’s “highly standardized training program” as a key differentiator. All of its courses include a nine-module ground school, static aircraft mock-ups, rescue equipment demos, flight proficiencies and technical and emergency procedures training, according to the company. In addition the company stresses that its Part 133 Class D Human External Cargo Rescue Hoist training curriculum has been approved and audited by the FAA and Transport Canada.

SAROPS: USCG Maritime Planning Course


One of the top maritime SAR planning tools is the USCG’s SAROPS (SAR Optimal Planning System). The flagship course at the Coast Guard’s National SAR School—aimed at aspiring SAR mission coordinators or controllers—includes training in the use and application of SAROPS. The four-week-long Maritime SAR Planning course includes theory (about four days), application (about one week) and scenario-based training (about two weeks). Theory covers forces affecting drift, such as wind and surface currents, various types of maritime search objects and SAR policies, White explained. The application segment introduces students to SAROPS. The third phase includes Command Center scenarios, where students are exposed to the demands and pressures, as well as the noise and distractions, of a real-life SAR Command Center. In these role-playing exercises, the instructors—behind a one-way mirror—play the parts of the person in distress, the resources sent out to assist, the radio watchstander, 911 operator, hospitals, park rangers and anyone else they believe might be able to assist in the search. A scenario starts off with some type of statement, such as a mayday call from a fishing vessel at a certain location. The students decide on the search area, search patterns, resources and method of rescue.

About three years old, SAROPS is used in every case that requires a search plan—when communications are lost, creating uncertainty as to the position of the person or vessel in distress. The SAR controller inputs the search object—a person in the water, a raft or multiple types of airplanes or boats—its dimensions and the story of what happened. The scenario includes any information about the time, position and type of object. Solid data is best—such as the actual time and place where trouble occurred—but the software can work with more vague information such as the general area of an object or its point of departure and intended destination. SAROPS uses this data to create a starting point from which to run drift models.

The controller then activates SAROPS’ automated planning process. In approximately 90 seconds, the program crunches the data to create the search plan with the highest probability of success. It computes the optimal search area, pattern type and orientation, commence search point and track spacing to be used when the searchers arrive, taking into consideration the further movement of the object during the search.

SAROPS displays a swatch of colors, known as a probability grid (see image above), on a map interface, indicating the best area to search, explained Cdr. Chris Day, maritime planning officer with the Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. The grid’s colors, ranging from gray to red, represent increasing levels of probability that the object will be found there. The colors are created by the dispersal of a set of “particles,” each of which represents the search target. Initially these particles are “placed” within a set radius of the estimated location. Their movement simulates possible drift paths of the target from the last known or estimated position, a calculation based on computer wind and sea current modeling algorithms and real-time weather information. Where the most particles converge, the grid square is red, indicating a higher-probability area. The grid, in turn, is overlaid with a diagram of the search pattern, including icons for the starting point and the search vessel or aircraft. The SAR controller, operating out of a USCG Command Center, may select to use 2,500, 5,000 or 10,000 particles, depending on the size of the area to be searched. In most cases 5,000 is the normal setting.

Another way of describing SAROPS is that it’s running and evaluating up to 10,000 simulations of target drift—the particles—in just a few minutes in order to estimate the best area for searchers to cover when they arrive at the scene and the best orientation of the search pattern, explained Geoff Pagels, a SAR supervisor at the USCG 5th District’s Rescue Coordination Center in Norfolk, Va. SAROPS has greatly accelerated the generation of a search plan. Ten years ago it took an experienced SAR controller 2.5 hours to manually calculate a single search plan, White said. Now several hundred plans can be evaluated in just a few minutes. SAROPS typically focuses on variations of the parallel or creeping line patterns, as these are designed to cover large areas uniformly, White said. For smaller areas or where better data is available, other types of patterns, such as an expanding square or sector search, might be more appropriate.

The latest version of SAROPS features “backdrift,” which basically allows the program to run the drift model backwards to find the general area where a disaster occurred. This feature would be useful if a distress call comes in, but there is no last-known position. In the subsequent general search over an area of water, a promising debris field is found. At this point a backdrift, based on the debris location and the time of the distress call, can estimate a probable area where the emergency occurred. A forward-drift from there calculates the probable area to search and the optimum search pattern. This feature was used to help find victims of the June 1 Air France disaster. The Coast Guard was contacted by the French government, which felt the reverse drift would be useful, Pagels said. USCG did a backdrift from a debris field to the estimated crash area and then a forward drift to an area where more debris and bodies were found.

Could the program be improved? It would be helpful for information about a distress call to pop up on the SAROPS screen while the SAR controller is working, Pagels said. When a citizen calls in, it would be helpful to see the person’s name, number and location on the screen. “If it’s a cell phone call, we need to have complete access and viewing of the cell towers that pick up the call because that helps us narrow down the search area.”

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