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Search-and-rescue helicopters


Turbine-powered rotary-wing aircraft enable public safety agencies to perform rescue missions from harsh environments.

By Woody McClendon
Contributing Writer

Airbus H225

The search and rescue (SAR) helicopter community spans the entire civilized world. Tasked with retrieving accident and trauma victims from ships at sea, from offshore oil platforms, and from many other challenging environments, helicopter crews routinely hoist their patients from danger and fly them to medical aid onshore. And these missions are often performed in the worst weather conditions.

The very first SAR helicopter to enter service was the Sikorsky R-4. In 1942, it was deployed in the Pacific theater, where it accomplished a number of daring rescue missions. One of them required a series of long flights in 10,000-ft-high mountains to extract crew and passengers from the wreck of a small observation plane.

Sikorsky released the R-5 during WWII, and in 1949 it launched the H-19, a much larger aircraft powered by a Wright Cyclone R-1300 radial engine. Along with Bell H-13 3-place helicopters, H-19s served in Korea evacuating hundreds of wounded soldiers from the front lines, and supplying forward operating units as well.

The advent of the turbine engine revolutionized SAR helicopters. The Bell OH-58, the US Army version of the Bell 206 JetRanger, evacuated the wounded from the battlefield during the Vietnam War. It was soon followed by the larger Bell UH-1 which would become the world’s most popular helicopter. Fleets of UH-1s served in Vietnam in medevac missions, bringing thousands of soldiers out of the battlefield to safety.

The UH-1 was modified to a twin-engine version for the US Navy. Known as the Bell 212 in commercial service, this machine was later improved with a 4-bladed fully articulated rotor system and updated IFR avionics, becoming the Bell 412. The 412 is still in production in improved versions – the EPI with updated avionics, and the EPX with an improved drive train to increase hover performance.

Modern SAR helos

Today, the SAR helicopter community serves the world supported by leading manufacturers such as Airbus, Bell, Leonardo, MD, Robinson, and Sikorsky. Examples include Bristow’s SAR enterprise under contract to UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, serving the North Sea and other offshore oil fields using Sikorsky S-92s, as well as Leonardo AW139s on SAR missions in offshore oilfields around the world.

Airbus Helicopters. The manufacturer meets SAR needs with several types. The H225, powered by twin Safran Makila 2A1 engines, is popular with military organizations around the world. It is used for SAR in Norway, the UK, and Australia.

The Botswana Defence Force uses it for troop transport and extended SAR missions. And the Los Angeles County Sheriff Aero Bureau deployed 2 H225s configured for SAR missions in 2014. The nearby Angeles National Forest is widely used for hiking and mountain climbing, both of which create numerous calls for rescue. The H225 is capable of hoist missions as high as 9000 ft, and has successfully brought hundreds of injured people out of the mountains over the years.

Airbus H145s serve in SAR configuration in many countries. The latest version – the H145T2 – incorporates larger Safran Arriel 2E powerplants plus a fenestron that replaces the tail rotor. Its hot-and-high performance is a great improvement over that of previous versions.

Because of this, the Riverside Co Sheriff uses H145 as its primary mountain rescue helicopter. Easily capable of hoist missions on the highest peaks in the county (over 14,000 ft MSL), the H145 serves the SAR role in the most challenging terrain. Las Vegas Metropolitan PD also flies H145s for SAR, serving in the harsh mountain terrain west of Las Vegas. LVMPD performs 160 rescues a year flying these machines.

Bell 525

The Government Flying Service of Hong Kong operates 3 Airbus helicopters in SAR – an H155, an H175, and an H215 (formerly AS332 Super Puma). Each of them serves a defined radius of response in accordance with their size. They are all staffed with 2-pilot crews along with medics and nurses, as defined by the mission.

Bell. With twin GE CT7-2F1 engines that enable a max gross weight (with external load) of 21,500 lb, a range of 580 nm, and top speed of 160 kts, the Bell 525 gets SAR providers where they need to be to perform their missions – especially in remote locations.

Bell’s twin-engine line is a major contributor to the SAR mission worldwide. The newest version of the 412, the 412EPX, is becoming a favorite among SAR agencies. Its improved power train increases torque by 11% for better hot/high performance. NYPD is deploying 2 EPXs for SAR duty in and around New York City. And Ventura Co Sheriff’s Aviation Unit has taken delivery of an EPX to support its expanding population base with SAR capabilities.

The Bell 429 is also becoming a leader in the SAR community. Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) takes SAR calls from all over the state, and will soon accept delivery of its 3rd 429 from Bell.

Leonardo AW139

Leonardo. The AW139 first entered service in 2003. Currently, the operational fleet numbers almost 1200 aircraft. Built for the SAR mission, the AW139 can fly at 140 kts over 200 miles to a rescue site, hover to hoist trauma and accident victims aboard, and return to base without refueling. Equipped with a Honeywell Primus Epic 4-axis avionics suite, the AW139 can fly precise mission profiles in almost any kind of weather.

The smaller AW169 serves in the SAR field, flying the same range profile as the AW139. In Texas, Travis County’s STAR Flight uses the AW169 in the SAR role, carrying 2 patients at a time when needed. The larger heavy twin AW189 serves primarily in the offshore market as a crew transport platform, and, when needed, in SAR missions.

The Phoenix PD operates an AW109E in a joint project with Phoenix Fire Department. Phoenix FD has responsibility for SAR in the city, but also needed helicopters to respond to calls in the rugged hills and the surrounding desert. This AW109 has accomplished many successful hoist missions in the nearby Camelback Mountains.

Today, the company’s offerings for SAR operators also include AW119Kx, AW109 Trekker, AW109 GrandNew, and AW189 helicopters, plus the AW609 tiltrotor.

MD 902

MD. Agencies that fly MD 500 and MD 900 series helicopters often use them for SAR. The East Bay Park Police in northern California has used MD 500s to search for lost and injured hikers throughout its extensive expanse of rugged hills and canyons.

The department has made use of the 500’s crosswise patient litter to transport victims to safety.

The MD 902, designed with safety in mind, is an ideal performer in SAR configuration.

Powered by 2 Pratt & Whitney PW207E engines, a significant safety feature of the MD 902 is its anti-torque control provided by MD’s NOTAR system, which reduces pilot workload and external noise levels while improving safety in confined areas.

Robinson R66

Robinson. The manufacturer’s sole turbine-powered offering, the R66, has a single Rolls-Royce RR300. The Marine iteration is even equipped with pop-out floats for operation over water. For increased mission capabilities, the R66 can be equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks and cargo hooks.

Sikorsky. The Los Angeles Co Fire Department operates a mixed fleet that includes Sikorsky UH-60 Firehawks. LA County pioneered use of the UH-60 as a dedicated firefighting unit.

Overcoming numerous FAA certification issues, the department eventually bought 3 S-70A/S types from Sikorsky in 2005. Third-party companies installed retardant tanks, medical interiors, and purpose-built avionics.

These aircraft are on standby for SAR and related missions, and operate from the department’s helo base near WHP (Whiteman, Los Angeles CA).

Sikorsky S-92

In 2018, the LA County Fire Dept acquired 2 new S-70i helos from Sikorsky, outfitted them for SAR and firefighting, and deployed them into the fleet. The newer model is more powerful and effective in the firefighting mission, as it can haul a much larger load of water or retardant than the earlier S-70A.

Airborne SAR community remains prominent the world over. Thousands of people every year who would otherwise have died are alive because of brave, dedicated SAR crews who risk their own lives to save others.

Helicopters are vital to their mission as they transport SAR crews from disaster and trauma scenes unreachable by any other means. Their exploits are written into legend.

WoodyWoody McClendon has flown Challenger 604s on overseas trips, and Learjets, Citation IIIs, and King Air 350s in North and South America. His book When the Angel Calls relates his experiences over 10 years as a medevac pilot. He has written for Pro Pilot for more than 25 years.