SAR requirements trigger a demand for more hefty helos

Search and rescue ops bring need for more speed, range and lift capacity.

By Jay Chandler
ATP/Helo. Learjet, Shorts 360, Sikorsky S54, Boeing Vertol 234

Eurocopter EC225 on short final to a remote location near Hammerfest, Norway. Bristow Helicopters operates several FLIR-equipped aircraft in the SAR mission.

In Dec 2000, a distress call came in from the cruise ship Seabreeze I, 225 miles off the North Carolina coast, to evacuate all hands after the ship's boiler allegedly broke free, causing the engine room to flood.

Fortunately, no passengers were on board at the time, but suspicious circumstances surround the incident due to the fact that its scrap value was only $5–6 million but the boat was insured at over $20 million.

Nevertheless, the captain of the Panamanian-registered ship told the US Coast Guard (USCG) that his boat was in imminent danger of sinking and that the high winds and 25-ft seas could cause the ship to sink in a short time.

All 34 crewmembers were hoisted off the ship by USCG Sikorsky MH60 Jayhawks. In a recent interview, USCG Commander Walter Horne stated that one of the MH60s used in the rescue had 26 people on board before heading back to shore following the successful evacuation.

This is just one incident in the long list of successful rescues performed by brave men and women around the world each year doing what the helicopter does best—search and rescue (SAR). But are the helicopters available today capable of fulfilling the SAR needs of tomorrow?

In addition, the world's thirst for oil has driven oil drilling platforms further out to sea and with that the requirement for a new breed of helicopter—deep water capable, with a much longer range and higher payloads. How does this in turn inspire helicopter manufacturers to create aircraft with new technology and more efficient systems?

A review of common helicopters currently in use by SAR organizations around the world and what's coming in the next generation of helicopters will answer the question of how these aircraft can reach out further and stay longer in search of imperiled seamen or survivors.

US Coast Guard

USCG training takes place in all weather conditions to ensure that flightcrews are well prepared for the toughest SAR mission. Here a Sikorsky MH60J approaches a ship off Kodiak AK.

What is probably the largest SAR organization in the world using helicopters (in addition to other aircraft and marine craft), the USCG helicopter fleet consists of Eurocopter MH65s and Sikorsky MH60s. USCG routinely performs maritime SAR missions with both types of helicopter, but places them strategically around the US based on their specific mission capabilities.

By far the most prevalent of the fleet, with 101 in inventory, the MH65 is slightly faster and cheaper to operate than the MH60. The MH65 "Dolphin" is a short-range heli­copter with a radius of action of 120 miles.

It is certified in all weather conditions, day or night, except for known icing conditions. All H65s used in the law enforcement role were outfitted with FLIR and HUDs and are NVG compatible with USCG crews trained in NVG operations, greatly improving night-time search capability.

For longer-range missions and those rescues having more survivors, the MH60J Jayhawk is used for its greater endurance and higher useful load with a mission radius of over 300 miles.

The Jayhawk, which replaced the Sikorsky HH3F Peli­can, is also an NVG compatible all-weather helicopter, and traces its roots back to the US Navy SH60 Seahawk and US Army UH60 Black Hawk.

Currently, the fleet is receiving an avionics upgrade from the MH60J to the MH60T, which includes the Rockwell Collins common avionics architecture system (CAAS). CAAS is an integrated glass cockpit which provides updated avionics and integrated electro-optical sensor system with recording capability.

Several years ago, USCG was authorized to arm its helicopters under a program called Airborne Use of Force (AUF), and was given the additional mission of protecting national borders and conducting interdiction stops, hence the MH designation of both types.

Both operate with a crew of 2 pilots, a flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer, and each aircraft is equipped with a rescue basket, rescue litter, hypothermia suits and basic medical gear. Additional SAR equipment may be added to the standard setup depending on the situation and the number of reported survivors. Both the MH­60 and MH65 are outfitted with a rescue hoist capable of lifting 600 lbs.

In addition to a standard IFR avionics package and weather radar, all aircraft communicate with local law enforcement and rescue personnel using a Wolfsburg 5000 800-MHz radio.

Privatizing UK SAR

Ready for action, this MH65 is the mainstay of USCG SAR aircraft with 101 in the inventory. With its crew of 4, it can carry out SAR missions up to 120 nm from shore.

Across the pond in the UK, the SAR mission is currently divided between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) using both military and civilian helicopters. Westland Sea King HAR5s (40–50 years old now) are used by both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy and are due for retirement by 2016.

Currently, the military operates 8 SAR bases with the other 4 operated by the civilian contractor CHC through the MCA. These vital SAR bases are spread throughout the UK and comprise the UK's consolidated SAR network, but this may all change if final approval is given for an all-contract SAR operation currently under bid to replace the military's role in a designated SAR role for the region.


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