Helicopters are ideal aircraft for use on searches. Their ability to fly slowly or to hover allows them to conduct aerial searches, to carry search coordinators wishing to reconnoitre areas, to ferry searchers and to evacuate casualties.
Never approach a helicopter until the pilot or other crew member is aware of your location and gives you a signal to approach – usually a ‘thumbs up’ signal, or a wave. Your approach should be made from the 9 or 3 o’clock postion, due to the height of the main rotor blades – they can dip significantly towards the nose of the aircraft. Never approach the tail rotor section as some rotors cannot be easily seen when spinning and some have the potential to draw you into them like a jet intake.
First attract the pilot’s attention and approach when given an appropriate signal, usually a “thumbs up”. If the ground slopes, approach from the lower side within the pilot’s arc of visibility to ensure maximum clearance under the main rotot When blades are rotating slowly they droop downwards the most. High-speed rotors can be very difficult to see.
Remove or secure loose clothing and equipment, because the powerful air blast from the rotors can easily blow items like hats or caps away and they could even be sucked into engine air intakes.
When working on the ground under a low- flying helicopter, bear in the mind the potentially hazardous effects of the downdraft. It can easily blow medium-sized limbs from trees, flatten tents and scatter fires. If the air is cold hypothermia could well be aggravated in a poorly protected casualty.
Even if a helicopter attends, it may not be safe to conduct a rescue, and may be a danger to the helicopter crew or persons on the ground. In all situations the crew of the helicopter will make a decision to conduct the rescue or not, taking all factors into consideration including unnecessarily placing themselves or others in danger
The pilot will obviously make the decision on when and where it is safe to land, but search groups can help with information. A level clearing at least 40 metres in diameter will usually be ideal, but it may be possible to make do with less if the air is still. A landing area where the aircraft can descend while flying forwards into the wind is easier than one in which it is necessary to hover and then descend vertically. Temperature, wind direction and speed and whether the wind is gusty are important factors for the pilot and this information should be sent by radio if possible. If radio contact with the pilot is not possible, a searcher should be stationed at the upwind end of the clearing, firmly holding up a brightly- coloured jacket to act as a wind indicator.
When it is not possible to land, the winch can be used to raise or lower a casualty or searchers. A crew member will be sent down first and will instruct groups on what is required. Searchers should be prepared to act quickly, because hovering uses a lot of fuel and requires great concentration from the pilot. The crew member will always accompany a stretcher and will probably be winched with a searcher if only one or two lifts or descents are to be made. It is always preferable to conduct all winching of personnel with a crew membet However, if the situation warrants, it may be that a person is winched alone, in a single strop harness. This is risky in that the person is not secure other than by his or her own body weight. A fireman’s type harness is placed over the person’s head and sits up under the armpits. The arms are then lowered and kept in this position. During lifting it is imperative that the arms remain down or you will simply slide out and fall to the ground. Likewise, when at the helicopter, do not attempt to climb in or assist the operator in any way as your arms may become dislodged.
Directing a Helicopter
Situations may arise during the course of a search where you may be required to provide directions to a helicopter over the radio. Where possible, provide an accurate grid reference. If you spot an object in the distance and wish to direct the helicopter towards the object, provide your grid reference, a bearing and estimated distance. If you are directing the helicopter in close proximity then steer the pilot using the time on a clock face relative to the nose of the aircraft – e.g. “We are at your 11 o’clock, 500 metres ahead”.