Operating helicopters safely requires planning, careful risk assessment and constant vigilance. Starspeed’s Simon Mitchell, and Jonathan Turner from Maritime Aviation, provide an overview of off-airfield and yacht flying, while Survival Systems USA’s Keith Wille discusses options for those rare occasions when everything goes wrong
Nothing matches the helicopter’s versatility and ability to operate off-airfield. But there’s more to safely landing a helicopter ‘away’ than finding a suitable area, as Simon Mitchell, Managing Director at the UK’s Starspeed, notes: “The rules vary from country to country. In some parts of Europe it is quite complicated – Germany and Switzerland for example. It’s actually forbidden in some areas. In our experience the UK is probably the most flexible.”
Even in the UK, though, pilots must be aware of regulatory requirements. “Essentially,” Mitchell explains, “there is a division between what’s classified as a ‘Congested Area’ and what is not. Several regulations apply to a congested area landing, including the need for an accurate site survey having been made within the previous 12 months, while the helicopter must achieve Performance Class 1 take-off profiles. Pilots must also ensure the site is large enough and suitable for the helicopter, secure the landowner’s permission and inform the police.”
Performance Class 1 requires that a helicopter have enough power from one engine to land safely back on the take-off area or continue flight, clearing all obstacles by 35ft. Thus, only twin-engined machines are permitted to operate in Congested Areas.
Operating off-airfield presents many potential hazards, among which Mitchell says the most significant is weather, although he also emphasises the threat posed by obstacles and wires, and surface conditions on the day.
“Once you are landing you also have to be very aware of soft ground and FOD [foreign object damage] and think about your downwash. In basic terms, if you compare an off-airfield landing with a standard airfield landing, pilot workload is perhaps three times higher, with many more parameters to consider before making a safe approach and landing. It’s important to remember that during airfield operations and airways flying, pilot workload is shared with the airport, ensuring the approach path and runway are clear, and providing weather information, air traffic in the tower and air traffic ‘in radar’. When a helicopter pilot operates outside that structure, their task is far more complicated and the responsibility is all on them.
“For commercial off-airfield operations, especially at night, we try to get a landing site officer [LSO] on the ground first,” Mitchell goes on. “We often use Puma Aviation, but a few operations provide LSOs, who remain in radio communication with the helicopter. When this is not possible, we generally try to arrange for the landowner or someone else to be at the site, ensuring we call them before departure to see if there are any last-minute changes.”
Where helicopters are regular visitors off-airfield, a helipad, equipped with lights if night flying is required, makes sense. Mitchell notes that every helicopter’s flight manual specifies minimum helipad dimensions for the aircraft, while helipad design is listed in ICAO Annex 14, Volume II. He says: “For most helipads you want to achieve a minimum of 2D – and that translates into twice the longest dimension of the helicopter and rotors [D].”
The specifications for a helipad, at a private residence for example, are therefore well defined, but what are the additional requirements for a yacht landing? Jonathan Turner, Managing Director of Maritime Aviation, explains: “The helicopter landing area on a superyacht is known as a ‘shipboard heliport’. It presents unique features that may create challenges even for the most experienced pilot. First and foremost, it is hosted on a seagoing vessel subject to variable winds and sea states that cause the yacht to pitch and roll, heave and yaw; it’s effectively a moving target. In addition, shipboard heliports are generally in confined areas, close to vessel superstructure which, in itself, can create additional turbulence for the pilot to deal with.”
Turner continues: “Pilots operating to and from shipboard heliports must ensure the vessel has undertaken its own ‘preparations for flying’, with all loose articles, including furniture, cushions and so on removed or mechanically secured so that the downwash does not draw them up into the main rotor.”
And, just as two engines are a prerequisite for operations from Congested Area sites, a dual powerplant is preferable for flying over the ocean. “Most modern helicopters are perfectly capable of operating on one engine to reach safety, should the other fail,” Turner states. “An owner would always be encouraged to purchase a twin-engined helicopter for enhanced safety when operating to/from a ship. Also, most modern helicopters can be flown single-pilot and in IFR conditions, and this is how the majority of yacht helicopters operate. Some owners, however, prefer two pilots at all times, while some only demand two at night.”
Survival Systems USA is in the business of training a surprisingly wide range of professionals, among them military and civilian helicopter crews and passengers, how to survive in a worst case scenario after a helicopter accident. Most obviously including water training in the ‘dunker’, Survival Systems USA’s programme also covers how to survive the impact of an accident and those first few hours or days in the mountains, the desert, or the water, until search and rescue arrives. It is perhaps more relevant in this era of helicopter-equipped explorer yachts than ever before.
Keith Wille, Development Manager at Survival Systems USA, says: “Dunker training is our bread and butter, but we offer many other options, including different types of survival and safety training. Everything we do kicks in as soon as the pilot has exhausted his or her options. It’s the point where the aircraft is going down and crew and passengers are in survival mode.” Without the correct training, injured casualties could succumb to exposure in cold conditions within hours; add in the risk of drowning if they are in water, and it could be seconds.
The training is also about providing the tools and experience required to avoid panic. “We can explain exactly how an exit mechanism is used, but there’s no accurate way of describing or predicting panic,” Wille says. “But it happens here, in the training. Once people have experienced it and worked through it in a safe environment, they have a new level of self-confidence. And, from time to time, we have people who walk in the front door and tell us: ‘Your training saved my life’.
“We had such great feedback from commercial and military clients on the unexpected benefits of learning to deal with highly stressful, unexpected situations, that we created a leadership and team development programme around the training. Companies with no requirement for survival training send employees to us for the experience; it also means that pilots who come through here go away not only with survival skills but also better able to cope in high-stress situations.”
There is no prevention for pure bad luck, but the extreme situations Survival Systems USA trains for are best avoided through careful, professional piloting. Turner emphasises: “Pilots operating to and from yachts treat every aircraft movement as if it were their first ever. Hazards can be various and numerous on shipboard heliports and can manifest themselves at any time, creating an unsafe environment to which the pilot must react. Appropriate preparations for flying must therefore be undertaken prior to any flying operations to maintain safe and efficient operations.”
Mitchell agrees that at sea or on land, the pilot is inevitably the ultimate risk owner for the aircraft and its passengers. “There are just too many variables to manage the risks any other way. It places great responsibility on the shoulders of the pilot – every time they sit in the cockpit, the world is completely different, with different challenges.” Careful planning, on-the-day preparation, professional risk assessment and an operating culture that places the ultimate decision on whether or not an operation should go ahead on the pilot, is therefore essential to safe helicopter flying.