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10 Years Later: Helicopter Rescue Pilots Need Dedication and Perseverance

By Lee Benson | June 30, 2017
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Ten years ago, R&WI contributor Lee Benson discussed how young search-and-rescue pilots should prepare for their missions. This feature originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of what was then called Rotor & Wing. We are republishing his piece in celebration of R&WI's 50th anniversary.

Royal Air Force rescue helicopter

The Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter during a mission to retrieve a winch man onboard the fishing vessel. Photo courtesy of the Royal Air Force

The question posed by Rotor & Wing was, could I write an article about what it takes to be a good search and rescue pilot and how young pilots can prepare for this line of flying?


I immediately thought about the definition of a SAR pilot. Does it include pilots working in EMS operations that only do hospital-to-hospital transfers? I think you will see that many of the qualities needed in these restricted EMS programs are the same as needed for the classic SAR pilot. The difficult challenges faced by pilots that do this kind of flying are easily seen in some operations. Certainly the U.S. Coast Guard pilots with the challenges of working long distances offshore, at night, in weather, always bad weather, come to mind.

Then there are the pilots that man the rescue helicopters at Denali National Park in Alaska, who do some really remarkable high-altitude rescues. The list goes on, from the Hong Kong Government Flying Service to the British Air Rescue Services. The common thread here is that they all fly for great organizations. After all, few rescues occur where a pilot by himself or herself effects the rescue. Usually it’s the rescue dogs in the back that do the definitive work that saves the victim. Sometimes they use a hoist. Sometimes they step off a helicopter while the pilot rests the toe of a skid on an outcropping. Sometimes they even jump from a hovering helicopter into the ocean. Sometimes it’s a seasoned nurse with exceptional clinical skills. The folks in the back do the rescues. The pilot, or pilots, just get them to the scene and in position to do their stuff.

But if you’re going to snuggle up to a mountain, and put your skid toe on it, how much does your confidence in the equipment depend on the technicians in the hangar that maintain your trusty steed. While hovering over water moving 35 mph in a cement channel, if you don’t trust the equipment, you’re not going to get the job done.

So now we have a team that can do rescues. We have the guy that gets all the credit in the front seat, the folks who take more than their share of the risk in the back seats, and the guys that actually make all this work in the hangar. No, we are not ready yet. All of this is good, but without a proper management system none of this works. Somebody has to find the money to allow our heroes to fly and, in the process, interfere with some of Darwin’s best theories. But more than money, in great rescue systems management adds the correct environment for the dedicated professionals listed above to thrive. These managers understand risk mitigation, how to support their crews from unwarranted criticism, and when to take them to task for being less than bright.

Thank you for the opportunity to rant about being sure we all know that it takes a team to rescue victims and the team doesn’t stop at the main cargo door, let alone the pilot’s seat.

So what does it take to be a good rescue pilot? This falls into two categories: personality makeup and technical skills. By personality makeup, I refer to the quality of a person to care about the welfare of his fellow human beings above his own comfort or, indeed, his or her own safety. Another attribute is the quality of not being judgmental about a victim who makes choices in conflict with the pilot’s personal values. The lack of these two qualities over the long haul will hurt a pilot’s performance. These are hard qualities to sustain when you receive a call at three in the morning in lousy weather, particularly when you know from the dispatch that most likely the person you’re going on is some gang-banger who got shot being a fool. I’d let that guy walk to the emergency room and lose little sleep. The problem is every once in a while the only thing that the victim has done wrong is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The other side of this coin is to not let sense of mission get in the way of good aeronautical decision-making. The pressures on a rescue pilot to complete the mission can be enormous. Maybe the greatest pressure is from himself, as in, if I don’t complete this mission, someone will die, I’ll lose the respect of the crew and other pilots, management will question my abilities. These guys are motivated to save people; they don’t like turning their backs on victims. You, as the pilot, need to be able to make good decisions and stand by them regardless of pressure from the crew. I will guarantee you a lot of the accident rate in EMS flying is related to this subject. Some small amount of this can be mitigated by good crew resource management. But, as always, when the foo hits the fan, you the pilot are going to be held responsible by management, the regulatory gods, and most importantly yourself.

The second part of what makes a good rescue pilot is excellent technical skills. The pilot needs to have a firm grasp of the systems on his aircraft. Does this warning light mean land on the nearest piece of flat ground or is it prudent to continue the flight to the hospital? When the guys in the back are doing CPR on a child, this is not the time to second-guess yourself in either direction. Rescue pilots also need to have above average skills in handling the helicopter. They don’t need to be the Red Baron, but rescue flying includes a lot of flying on the edge of the capabilities of a helicopter. Hoist work, one-skid landings, confined-area landings and take off, high and hot operations — all this and more are pretty common in rescue work.

The question is where does a young pilot acquire these skills. In the early 1970s, when I was first flying helicopters commercially, all we did was utility work. The EMS and electronic news-gathering markets, to name two, hardly existed. Today, less pure utility work is being flown overall and a fair proportion of the fire control, seismic work, and geological survey contracts awarded have fairly high requirements for total pilot time and mountain-flying experience. So where to get the experience until you have the time to do some utility work?

I know that sounds a lot like my dad telling me, "Son, I walked to school five miles through snow hip deep to an elk." I never knew they had snow or elk in Florida, but that’s another story. Back to our young pilot. Just because you’re doing basic instruction or hauling bank documents doesn’t mean you can’t work on some of these skills. Example: when you pick a helicopter off the ground, you should be able to feel each corner in sequence leave the ground. Also, while picking up the helicopter, the skids should not move fore, aft or side to side. Why? Because when you’ve landed in the rocks, a skid could be stuck under a rock. If you rush the takeoff, you may wind up looking at the sky through the chin bubble. The same idea applies with sideways movement causing you to catch on something.

This article isn’t long enough to cover the examples of good habits and things that can be practiced. Let me make a last suggestion to young pilots. You may have to endure a couple of stories about "there I was," but there is a whole generation of Australian and American Vietnam War era pilots that are going to sneak into retirement shortly. Buy them a beer and ask some questions. You will be amazed at how many really dumb things they have done in a helicopter and gotten away with it. I know they would love to tell you how to be a little smarter than they were and how to avoid those mistakes.

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