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!