Working with helicopters

  • Grounded or hovering helicopter
  • Landing and taking off
  • Travelling in a helicopter
  • Aircraft searching for someone else
  • Aircraft searching for you

Helicopters are one of the most useful tools available to assist in search and rescue work. However, they do have limitations and an over reliance on them can lead to unnecessary delays. Alternative search and rescue plans for missing or injured persons should always be implemented in parallel to the use of helicopters. It is important for leaders and party members to have a good understanding of operating and safety procedures to be adopted when working with these aircraft.

Safety-related operational procedures

There are very specific procedures designed to ensure safety which must be understood and followed by all people when involved with helicopters in any role. These are summarised below.

Landing, take off and loading operations

  • The landing area selected should be approximately 7 metres ×7 metres, as flat as possible, and well away from power lines, trees or other obstructions that could make the helicopter’s approach to the area hazardous.
  • Remove any loose branches, protruding sticks or anything else which could interfere with the helicopter’s landing. There is extremely strong down wind from the main rotor and side wind from the tail rotor.
  • For safety, people should stay at least 50 m away from landing and departing helicopters.
  • If directing a helicopter pilot for landing, stand on the upwind side of the selected landing area with your arms outstretched indicating the landing area.
  • If a cable or sling is lowered from a hovering helicopter, allow it to touch the ground first to dissipate static electricity. After hooking up cargo, sling, etc, move forward and to one side of the helicopter and signal to the pilot that the operation is complete.

Travelling in a helicopter
Upon entering a helicopter follow directions from the crew. Move to your seat, fasten your seat belt and adjust it as necessary. Keep your seat belt fastened at all times until the pilot or crew signals to you that it is safe to leave the helicopter.

Grounded or hovering helicopter

  • Do not approach or leave without the pilot’s knowledge and all-clear signal, which is usually indicated by a ‘thumbs up’ signal, or at night by a flash of landing lights.
  • Always approach or depart from the front and remain in the pilot’s field of vision. Once the all-clear signal is given, you can approach or depart from the helicopter. If the helicopter is on a slope, always approach up the slope and depart down the slope to increase rotor clearance. Personnel approaching a helicopter must keep their heads down at all times. On windy days the rotors can flap about and the slower the rotor is moving the lower it can dip. See Figures 41.1 and 41.2.
  • Do not wear hats or other articles of clothing that can be blown away.
  • Never reach up or chase articles blown about.
  • Protect your eyes. If blinded by dust, grit, snow, etc. crouch or sit down and wait for assistance.
  • Never go near the tail area. The tail rotor is often not visible due to its high speed. Never stoop or walk under the tail boom.
  • If disembarking while the helicopter is hovering just off the ground, get out and off in a smooth, unhurried manner.
  • Carry stretchers, skis and or other equipment parallel to the ground and below waist height. Keep a firm grip on all items that could be caught by wind generated from the rotors.

Aircraft searching for someone else
If you are in an area where light aircraft or helicopters are obviously conducting operations in which you are not involved, you should instruct your group not to wave or attract the attention of the aircraft. If the helicopter has seen you, it may circle several times and may drop a message pad with instructions or questions such as ‘Please raise hands if you have seen a party of one male adult and two children? If so, please point in direction last seen.’. It is not always possible for a helicopter to land, even if the ground is clear. The landing and take-off capabilities of a helicopter are affected by such factors as fuel weight, altitude, temperature, wind strength, and number of personnel on board.

Aircraft searching for you
Attracting the attention of searchers from the air is best done by large, brightly-coloured material laid out in open, high places, or by smoky fire by day. Waving brightly-coloured material or trying to reflect the sun’s rays with a mirror may help. By night, a brightly flaming fire is generally best, but shining a torch may assist.

The helicopter is a very valuable search and rescue tool. However, do not rely on them totally, as a suitable helicopter may not be immediately available due to other commitments or the remoteness of the area. Weather conditions may prevent searching or an evacuation by air. Always have a backup plan ready. Whenever you are working in and around helicopters, take your time, think what you are doing, watch the pilot and keep your head down!