Helicopter Rescue – The Golden Hour is Ticking Away

Consider this true-life scenario that played out at sea few years ago.

The Situation

A naval ship is proceeding to anchorage after undertaking trial landings for night clearance of a particular helicopter type (let’s call her Mumbo). During the trials, a number of deficiencies such as upkeep of aviation facilities, training, adequacy of lighting systems, etc have been unearthed. However, there is no embargo on flying and the subject ship has been operating helicopters by day.

After completing the trial landings, Mumbo continues with routine night flying over sea while the ship shapes course towards anchorage. Another type of helicopter from the same shore base (lets call her Jumbo) is also engaged in a training sortie in the same local flying area over sea. It’s a beautiful night, moon is shining bright and God is in office.

Call for Rescue

Suddenly, the radio crackles with an imminent ‘Search & Rescue’ (SAR) requirement. A person has fallen unconscious in the ship’s gym. His vitals are reported to be normal but he is not responding. Having monitored local helicopter traffic on radio, the ship raises controlling station on radio and requests helicopter for ‘SAR’.

Note – there is no ‘search and rescue’ involved in this case. It’s probably a case of Medevac (medical evacuation), but the call given is for SAR. And going by the tone and tenor, it’s real and urgent.

Heroes Without Capes

Such calls have the potential to make everyday heroes. Having raised an alarm, the controller requests Jumbo if it can undertake the mission. Why, of course! Jumbo never says no to SAR! Just get the clearance from HQ. Never mind that sortie being flown was a training mission. Never mind that the helicopter is not configured for medical evacuation. Never mind that nobody has yet certified the patient fit for airlift. Military flying has its weak moments where ‘mission’ can overtake ‘safety’.

The training sortie is quickly called off while the instructor takes over controls and positions Jumbo overhead the ship, ready to proceed for landing as soon as clearance is received. Mumbo crew shrug it off with a ‘wish we could help’ sentiment since their Ship-Advanced Light Helicopter combination has not yet been accorded formal approval. Everyone is waiting for the green signal.

Who Will Bell the Cat?

The approval process has meanwhile gone all the way up to HQ because of lack of clarity on the ship’s and crews’ night flying readiness. After 15 minutes of tense wait overhead, Jumbo is ordered to abort the mission and ship directed to enter harbour and evacuate patient through the gangway. Obviously, the ‘golden hour’ in Medevac parlance would be lost by the time this happens. Coordinating unscheduled entry permission to a harbour could take hours.

Fortunately, the patient, who in this case was the vessel’s doctor himself, comes-to by the time first lines are passed. All is well but one shudders to think of the possibilities. Surely, some people in the decision chain must have lost sleep that night.

The primary job of helicopters, as noted by Igor Sikorsky – the man who pioneered the first practical helicopter, is to save lives.

Red Lines or Red Tape?

Having evolved from the early days of rotary flight to ultra-modern helicopters with multi-role capabilities, why do we find ourselves bound in red tape in such time-critical situations? It would have been a sad day if we had lost the patient despite having two multi-million dollar assets up in the air.

It is not my intention to question the decision making process on ground or in the air. It was a dynamic and potentially perilous situation. Those who took the decision had their own good reasons for doing so. I will only make an attempt to highlight the lacunae to ensure that help, if at hand, is always brought to bear for saving a life.

Possible Reasons

Deconstructing the whole episode brings to fore three possible reasons why the decision to call off evacuation by helicopter was taken:

  • Unserviceability of ship’s aviation facilities.
  • Lack of clear Go/No Go criteria for shipborne helicopter operations.
  • Lack of guidelines for Medevac and live helicopter rescue.

As per BRd 766, OPDEF action is to be taken when the ship’s aviation facilities are not available for planned aircraft operations (last checked:Art 0521, refer updated rules). That piece of real estate on a ship called ‘helo deck’ has an extremely important, life saving role to play. While we take immense pride in maintaining the ship’s boats in prime condition, several aids on the helo deck, especially on ships without integral flights, are often left dysfunctional and unserviceable. It is akin to having a hospital with unserviceable ambulances.

I attach below, a picture of an offshore helideck with lighting scheme conforming to latest CAP 437 Touchdown / Position Marking (TD/PM) lights and Circle H-lighting as a rough benchmark for comparison. Please compare with the decks you have seen in the navy. A ‘black hole’ exists on most ships I have seen. Is there scope for change?

An offshore helideck with latest CAP437 lighting scheme (image from Bureau of Ocean Energy Management website www.boem.gov)

Minimum Equipment & Upkeep

Secondly, what is the minimum fit required for helicopter operations from ships? What are the Go / No Go criteria? Again, as per BRd 766, flying should not take place from the ship, unless operationally essential, without equipment such as serviceable Glide Path Indicator (for night flying), V/UHF Radio, correct firemain pressure, suitably qualified and equipped deck crew etc. And here’s the caveat – BR 766 carries a bold caution that ‘operationally essential is defined as war fighting or life saving’.

So in hindsight, which is always 6/6, it does seem that there was some reason to clear a MEDEVAC that night. Whether patient was fit for air transport in a Seaking 42B I leave to the good judgement of Captains, both onboard ship and helicopter.

What About Operating Limits?

If the helicopter in question did not have an established Ship-Helicopter Operating Limitations (SHOL) envelope for that ship, would we have tasked him to undertake MEDEVAC / rescue? There is a school of thought that this should be left to the authorising officer and aircraft commander. But do present rules permit helicopter operations from any ship unless SHOL trials have been completed or there’s some ‘common’ envelope in force?

SHOL trial is a time and resource intensive activity and can prolong for months, even years. Is there a case then for clearing, after due diligence, a limited ‘sector’ or ‘common minima’ for the purpose of rescue and casualty evacuation? I would think so, provided the aviation facilities are maintained in a safe & usable state of upkeep.

Helicopters Can Fly When Boats Can’t Be Lowered

In some conditions, it is safer to launch and recover helicopters when seaboat operations have become hazardous. Rescue by a capable helicopter when one is available would then become the most practicable method of evacuation. We should not, at such times, find ourselves bound and gagged in bureaucracy.

A grim reminder. I recall one incident where a fully serviceable embarked helicopter couldn’t be launched (by day) for medevac because the ship had not completed SHOL trials. The patient was transferred by boat to another ship, in high seas. He didn’t make it. Who should answer for this?

Experience is no Panacea

It can be a fatal mistake to let experienced pilots ‘take a call’ when others haven’t completed their homework. Even tons of experience is no insurance against the unforgiving night sea environment as may be evident from a historical review of offshore accidents. PHHL AS365N3 (VT-PWF) accident with two fatalities, 04 Nov 15, off Bombay High is a recent example (read here). Neither should we shift the onus onto gullible crews who are tuned, like all helicopter pilots, to playing hero.

Food For Thought?

Helicopter crews often come across unforeseen situations and it may not always be prudent to prescribe rules that are cast in stone. But surely some ‘helicopter rescue guidelines’ are needed to ensure that rescue is given a fair chance without throwing all caution to the winds.

An IAF Mi-17V5 paid a very heavy price during rescue efforts in aftermath of Uttarakhand floods, 2013 (read here). Lessons are applicable to all of us.

There is ostensibly a need for greater debate on this issue. But our time is limited. The next patient may not have the good fortune of the doctor that night. The golden-sixty is ticking away.

And then no mumbo jumbo will work.


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views are personal.

This story was originally written by me in 2013 and published in Naval Aviation Safety Journal ‘Meatball’. A few edits have been incorporated from recent experience.

4 thoughts on “Helicopter Rescue – The Golden Hour is Ticking Away

  1. Few people have sought clarifications and raised queries on the article ‘Helicopter Rescue – The golden hour is ticking away’. Here is a short response to few of the common doubts:
    1. Ship in question was an OPV.
    2. There were two heptrs in the air. One (ALH) was undertaking night SHOL trial & other was a Sk42B on a training msn with an instructor and trainee pilot. OPV is small deck, requiring special clearances for night ldg.
    3. A number of issues pertaining to unserviceable ldg aids and upkeep of night ldg facilities were raised by SHOL team in days preceding this one. That weighed on decision makers in HQ.
    4. Both heptrs were exhausting their endurance while the decision making apparatus was gridlocked.
    5. Since this was just about 20nm off mouth of harbour, ship could be diverted back home. What if it was middle of the sea?
    6. Deck lighting inadequacy is something heptr pilots have learnt to live with. Till I left the game in 2014, apart from the tankers built in Italy, all ships other than the carrier had poor, inadequate visual aids, mostly in pathetic condition because the flight dept became an orphan on ships without integral flights.
    7. We have self-flagellated ourselves for far too long with the concept of darken ship and diffused deck lighting that was invented for a different age. Which enemy detects / identifies us through deck lighting switched on for a few minutes for helo recovery?
    8. The net sum of all these factors yields poor VCE (visual cue environment), black hole effect and an over-reliance on piloting skills. This drives workload, especially at the end of a day or night flight where pilot alertness is flagging & fatigue is high.

    There is, to my mind, an urgent need for following:

    1. Upgrade our flight decks to make them more user-friendly.

    2. Modernise deck lighting and maintain landing aids in prime condition so as to enable helo ops at short notice.

    3. Evolve an emergency common minimum envelope for decks that are new commission and yet to undergo SHOL trials after ensuring above points.

    4. Define go/no go criteria for medevac/casevac missions, with adequate flexibility so that the pitfall of false bravado is avoided.

    This article is meant to provoke a debate on this subject. I don’t hold all the answers, but some reverse osmosis from civil offshore ops will definitely help. Read the article “Don’t Wait Until Dark” (linked below the article) on kaypius.com for some pointers in this direction.

    Happy landings, folks

  2. Risks have to be taken in military aviation.
    Professionalism in this case involves risk mitigation.
    Which of the two helicopters were better equipped/placed to undertake the mission.
    Procedures underway/still not in place may be a factor but not the overriding factor.
    Finally if assessment said it was a no go the mission could have been called off.

  3. In military

    I believe the best point brought out here is d power of commanders to give
    Go or No Go keeping higher echelons in confidence

    N rest will fall in place

    Decision making has to b quick

    Notwithstanding that,
    we should strive to get all relevant trials done in quick time and strict adherence to maintaining deck facilities which will take us miles ahead in professionalism n makes it easier to take such decisions in real time situations.

    Sir thank you once again for enlightening the helicopter community

  4. Mil Ops generally involve CASEVAC MEDEVAC in marginal conditions .. Enemy or Weather or both with limited platforms that may not be the most suitable one. But the necessity is to finish the deal within the Golden hour

    Since the evolution was close to the coast and at dusk, there was limited risk, if it all. With the upper modes of AFCS, a skilled pilot would be able to manage operations with poor deck lighting environment. But thats not an excuse for a sad state of aviation support infra.

    The decision for such instances should not have been pushed up and an act react action would have been apt. Life and War do not go as planned.

    I would add a twist if there was a Man Overboard from thr ship or one of the two choppers force landed on water, would the ship helicopter cooperation not have happened….

    Worse, let’s say there was a ship which had a good lighting system and there was a minor explosion knocking of some crew and lighting of the ship… What will we do. Go away from the scene…

    I am clear that events that unfolded that dusk were non coherent to the military ethos, camarederie and multiple other things like risk taking, decision making

    The above notwithstanding, there is definitely a necessity when ships are put out to sea, the flight deck and associated equipment should be fully ticking to support helicopter operations

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