By their very nature, search and rescue (SAR) missions occur in some of the harshest operating conditions, and a helicopter SAR crew is often an essential capability used to rescue personnel. The complex operating environment requires detailed communication, co-ordination and skill.  

The military is still the largest and most experienced sector of SAR; however, the public safety sector has expanded significantly in recent years. Police, firefighters and forestry departments around the world have expanded their helicopter rescue capabilities significantly. 

The newest sector of helicopter rescue is the commercial arena, where helicopters are being adapted to provide paid-for rescue and medical evacuation services. All of these sectors operate under separate training and operation guidelines, but at times there is an overlap of operations from one arena to the other. A notable example of this was rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where helicopters from all three arenas operated together around New Orleans, with each conducting operations within their own training guidelines depending on their designations.

The military’s use of helicopters and rescue hoists makes them a global estuary for rescue crewmembers. Most commercial or public safety crewmembers have had some military experience, and although similar, training guidelines differ from service to service as each has a different areas of focus within their operating areas.  

In general, the military uses a combination of classroom learning and helicopter training for an initial designation as a rescue crewmember, the focus of which is largely based around communication, procedure and equipment. Upon completion of the initial training, crewmembers are sent to their corresponding squadrons where they must complete some form of on-the-job training (OJT), usually for 18 months, before being designated crewmembers. The advantage of this form of training is the ability to train large groups of individuals in a standardized curriculum, and with the advantage of time and resources, gives a good base of experience from which to carry out military rescue operations.

The public safety arena comprises all public services not considered the military. Their training is generally governed by the local air authority and local unit instructions. These units must train to the local air authority minimums for designation, but can operate under their own local safety standards. Training consists of classroom instruction, practical simulation training such as hoisting towers or physical helicopter simulators, and OJT. Some units have expanded to use VR simulators in conjunction with the physical simulators, however, due to multiple departments having to work together and share budgets, newer and more innovative training systems are dependent on departmental budgets. In the US, most small or medium-size fire departments carry the burden of training their own hoist operators, and therefore use National Guard helicopters to carry out rescue operations, and as one can imagine, the limits to training budgets and National Guard availability dictates how much practical training is actually conducted.

“The advantages of this training are the rise of highly specialized rescue units that are flexible and multi-mission capable,” said Luc Deffense, a rescue specialist, qualified Helicopter Hoist Operator, and proprietor of Deffense Consulting. “Fire departments, as an example, can share the costs of training with police departments and National Guard units. The disadvantages of this is the highly localized nature of the training can lead to little oversight into the training and qualification programme.”

The newest sector of rescue services is in the commercial arena. This service sector has been borne out of the insurance requirements of industries such as ocean oil drilling or medical facilities to have a rescue or medevac service available. These industries must operate under the training requirements of their local air authority and are restricted in their areas of operation to commercial use. Their training is again a mix of classroom, practical training with a physical simulator, and OJT. The main workforce of commercial entities is typically composed of former military hoist operators and entry-level paramedics or nurses. Although these units are very professional and have a good oversight system, they are commercial, and thus are tied to the ebb and flow of the particular industry they are servicing. This can lead units to operating with a surplus of resources, or making do with scant resources and limited training.

In the world of aircrew training, there are a handful of commercial training centers that have cropped up. These include Priority 1 Air Rescue, which operates globally, Blackcomb Helicopters, which operates in Canada, Cobham, operating in Europe, and ACE Helicopter Training Center in Australia, to name but a few. 

Despite the regulatory differences around the world, commercial training centers have developed comprehensive training programmes that are highly effective. Under the leadership of Brad Matheson, Priority 1 Air Rescue has developed several training programs for hoist operators under multiple regulations. Their core syllabus is based on classroom training minimums, physical hoist platform simulators and VR training simulators. This training approach helps develop a crewman with good training habits and effective communication skills with limited need for expensive flights. Priority 1 has used this model to train hoist operators from oil rigs to the US Coast Guard.

Cobham helicopter academy operates mostly as a military contractor for foreign services, providing training largely based on the UK military model for search and rescue. The syllabus is comprehensive and Cobham generally focuses on establishment of entire programmes, meaning they focus on training whole sets of pilots and crewmen from scratch. Cobham also uses dynamic hoisting simulators, like the AMST Helicopter Rescue Hoist Trainer, to minimize costs and expedite the acclimation of crews in a helicopter environment.

There are a number of other helicopter hoist training centers and facilities, most providing training in-house to employees such as CHC and Bristow. These companies use geographical operating areas to tailor their programs to the regulations of the area they happen to operate in. Other companies are more tailored in the training they provide; for example, Air Zermatt of Switzerland specializes in dynamic hoisting and trains approximately 20 international hoist operators per year. “We do real hoisting with the helicopter up in the mountains,” said Oliver Kreuzer, SAR Flight Paramedic at Air Zermatt. “We do not train the ‘masses’, but rather already experienced hoist operators who want to progress to become a dynamic-hoist operator and hoisting up at high altitude.”

As previously noted, civilian operators have relied strongly on ex-military SAR operators from around the world. With aerial SAR operations increasingly being outsourced to civilian operators, as well as increased demand for hoisting capabilities in the renewable energy sector, abinitio students will require more time or new training methods to achieve the same level of proficiency. A report generated on behalf of UK SAR noted ‘the long-term availability of appropriate aircrew’ as a significant area of risk, and almost certainly provides an additional opportunity for simulation in this sector.

Deffense shared his thoughts on rescue hoist training: “It is my opinion that training programs need to be taught in a four-stage approach covering classroom, practical, VR simulator and flight training. Classrooms should cover all the required air authority mandates for crewmembers and hoist operations for their operating location or aircraft operating certificate. Practical, using procedural physical simulators, should cover equipment preparation usage and employment based on the customer’s equipment. In this case, the physical simulator should roughly be mocked-up to resemble the customer’s aircraft, with the same hoisting equipment as their aircraft. In the absence of proper experience tracking for hoist operators, curriculums must be designed to cover all regulatory requirements for classroom training. The VR simulator phase is indispensable in acclimating students to proper voice procedures and general mission flow expectations. This is particularly helpful before the flight phase to make students comfortable in the aircraft and help students from diverse backgrounds acclimate to new voice procedures and distance estimation. Finally, the flight phase should be focused and cover actual live hoisting with experienced instructors monitoring and guiding students through a customer-centric training program covering all mission areas.”

Deffense added: “There are a variety of opinions on the future of hoist operator training. Some believe that they should be licensed operators with designations issued from regulatory air authorities, while others like the standards the way they are. It is my opinion that an accrediting agency should be established to act as a training validation agency. An agency could set standards of training commesurate with a unit’s mission requirements and validate the training provided by third-party providers. This would validate instructors and curriculum alike and provide a measure for consumers to validate the costs of training.”

Speaking about such training was Rob Munday, Hoist Program Co-ordinator, SR3 Rescue Concepts. “Helicopters are inherently expensive to operate, so it’s very rare that training providers are approached by a client who has a limitless budget. We’re always working towards ways to reduce costs, so when we are designing a course, we always need to consider who we are training, and we will usually recommend training the team as a whole. This is one of the things that sets us apart from most others – we are providing pilot-specific training by certified flight instructors,” said Munday. “We also have to consider the risk versus reward in every training session. As instructors, we’re always asking ourselves ‘how can we maximize value and minimize risk?’ at the same time. Obviously, hanging people underneath an aircraft comes with some inherent risk, and in order to fully prepare rescue crews for the rigors of the real world, our training has to be challenging and put the teams into situations that also come with inherent risk. The key is to manage that and to stay as safe as we can.” 

According to Munday, there isn’t much in the way of new technology that has trickled down to the ‘entry level’ market that many agencies operate in with regard to resources and budget. Static hoist training devices allow for mechanical procedure-based training and are often on a raised platform to enable limited hoist cable functionality. This type of device is more routinely used in military training environments, or available as supplemental training through the few training centers that have rear crew training programs.

Militaries are increasingly outsourcing aircrew training for reasons related to budget, availability, retention of personnel, expertise and managerial efficiency. “Once you start getting into big military and government contracts, the technology starts to break new ground with the introduction of simulation devices like static training towers that are configurable for the aircraft type, and VR / augmented reality (AR) systems,” explained Munday. “Unfortunately, equipment like these are costly initial investments and are rarely portable, which requires students to travel, immediately putting them outside the budgets of many operators.”

In the UK, Lockheed Martin is delivering Chinook training at the new state-of-the-art Chinook Mk6 Synthetic Training System Facility at RAF Odiham. The system consists of fully immersive devices that help aircrew safely train for realistic missions where teamwork is critical. Lockheed Martin currently provides AR training for the program with an emphasis on rear cabin training tasks like gunnery, sling loads, rescue hoist and cargo operations. The AR technology is enabled by the Scalable Advanced Graphics Engine (SAGE) visual and database system common across Lockheed Martin land and flight simulation, which supports UK MoD Air / Land Integration. This technology enables whole-crew training in a synthetic environment for the first time in the 40-year history of the UK Chinook Force.

CAE’s Mission Augmented Virtual Reality/Rear Crew (MAVRC) Trainer is also providing new training opportunities. Leveraging the latest digital immersion technologies, the MAVRC Trainer uses augmented reality populated by high-fidelity visuals from CAE Medallion MR image generator (IG). The result is a full-fidelity rear crew training solution combining physical and virtual elements to deliver a realistic and immersive training capability for rear crew, including specific training needs like rescue hoist training.

VR and MR (mixed reality) simulations are used for rescue hoist training due to their relatively low cost and availability. However, despite the immersive nature of these devices, the lack of realistic cable dynamics limits training outcomes and leaves a simulation training gap.

The advent of new high-fidelity training devices that incorporate VR / MR simulations in addition to live cable dynamics along with the latest in immersive technologies, including geo-specific terrain databases, realistic visual effects and visual cues, are starting to address this training gap.

Rescue hoist training in the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) rotary-wing fleets has recently been modernized with the HMTS, which is part of the official aircrew training syllabus for the CH-149 Cormorant and CH-148 Cyclone helicopters. In the case of the Cormorant, the HMTS was delivered to the Operational Training Flight (OTF) at 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron. The HMTS combines a VR immersive visual environment through a wearable headset with a physical replica of the cabin area where the flight engineer works a hoist cable connected to an ‘X-Y’ table – a specialized table that moves along different axes, creating tension on the cable to simulate various loads.

According to Bluedrop, the HMTS allows for training of ‘high-risk, low-repetition’ scenarios that are difficult or impossible to train any other way, improving safety and proficiency of SAR crews. Crews can go from hoisting from a ship to hoisting in the jungle canopy in a matter of minutes without the cost of added flight time or expense. As of today, the HMTS has been configured for the CH-47 Chinook, CH-149 Cormorant, CH-148 Cyclone, S-92, and the US Air Force HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter, amongst others.

“Technology is no longer limiting our ability to have a man-in-the-loop training device for these complex hoist operating environments – that’s what makes the HMTS different from anything else today,” said Jean-Claude Siew, EVP of Technology and Simulation for Bluedrop. “In addition to immersive virtual and MR, we put a lot of effort into creating dynamic simulation of the rescue hoist cable. Hoist operators using HMTS will actually interact with a cable that reacts to dynamic conditions exactly as it would in an actual helicopter.”

With the availability of new technological options in simulated rear crew training, one can expect to see decreased cost, decreased environmental impact, improved safety and training proficiency in rescue hoist operator training. 

Munday agreed, but also provided a caveat: “The advantages of simulation are obvious – increased safety due to being able to complete risk-free training, offering replays of performances, the ability to gain more repetitions in a shorter period of time, and better-quality feedback. Yet, there is still no substitute for real-world flying, and some skills simply must be worked on in the field. Every hoist aircraft is slightly different, and there are nuances that must be learned in the real-world aircraft.”