Flying to Save Lives

Performing a search and rescue (SAR) mission in a helicopter requires first-class operational capabilities, leadership and anticipation skills. Juan Fontanals, a pilot, SAR specialist and director of operations at INAER Offshore, discusses his work.

© Luis Vizcaino / La Mancha Press
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Can you talk us through a SAR mission in a helicopter?
Juan Fontanals:
The SAR mission begins on the ground when the call comes through from the rescue coordination center. The aircraft and crew therefore have to be ready in advance. Depending on the rescue conditions—the light, the weather, the target, the region, etc.—the mission can be organized in different ways. We don’t have very much time to draft the emergency response plan, which then has to be approved by the rest of the crew—namely the winch operator, the rescuer, the copilot and the captain, for SAR missions with a Dauphin, for example. To be able to give the best orders during the mission, pilots must always know what is going on around them. The state of the sea, the size of the target, the distance, and the light conditions can all make it very difficult to perform a SAR mission. That’s why the coordination between everyone involved must be first-rate: The pilot has to make sure that the helicopter is in the right position over the target, whilst giving precise orders to the winch operator and the rescuer. Then, if the pilot loses sight of the target, he or she has to follow the winch operator’s instructions. Automatic flight systems have now made maneuvers a lot simpler and safer.

What qualities does a helicopter pilot need to successfully perform missions like these?
J. F.:
A pilot is the leader who guides the crew through critical and stressful situations, which just about sums up any SAR mission. When a pilot is well-trained, and follows the flight procedures to the letter, SAR operations become simpler and safer. Saying that, it’s impossible to plan a SAR mission from A to Z: You’re going to face numerous unexpected problems and need to anticipate. When you fly out to sea, you have to cover long distances with nowhere to land in the event of an emergency. Your first concern, therefore, it to make sure you can make it back to dry land. To conclude, I think you need a well-trained pilot, who is calm, knows the procedures inside out, and has very good communication and coordination skills. You also need an effective and wellmaintained helicopter of course!



- 1980: Pilot in the Spanish Navy
- 1986: Offshore pilot for Helicsa
- 1993: Air sea rescue pilot for Helicsa 
- Since 2006, director of operations at INAER Offshore
- Qualifications: AS365 Dauphin (C and N versions), Sikorsky 61N.