How not to load someone in a helicopter

The following link has some text and a video clip from a recent rescue in the Fraser Valley.;=15653

As you can see they are performing what we call a hover stretcher load, which I wrote about today.

Now I know some of these guys, and if they read this I want them to know that any criticism I post here is in the interest of safety and is exactly what I would point out to them in person if I was involved in a task review. I know that I may not have all of the information on the exact nature of the rescue, but from what I can tell there are several problems with the way this was carried out. Some of these issues may have been due to the rushed nature of the rescue.

Simple observations:

  • RCMP members are not wearing proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). At a minimum while working around helicopters they should be wearing hearing and eye protection. Helmets are recommended. In addition, they’re on a river bank, and WCB would require them to be wearing PFDs. The SAR members in this case are wearing helmets, but no hearing or eye protection.
Informed opinions:
  • Subject was loaded feet first. 
  • This is wrong, and terrifying for the subject, 
  • This is unsafe as the center of gravity is dangerously close to the edge of the outside of the machine. 
  • with the head outside the machine the attendant in the helicopter cannot monitor vitals, or assist in any way if the subject becomes distressed.
  • Doors and seat cushions should have been removed from the helicopter prior to doing the rescue. 
    • The rear door of this helicopter model is a slider; it is acceptable to remain on during flight
    • looks like the seats are difficult to remove from this helicopter; possibly another machine should have been used.
  • the subject and their stretcher are not strapped in to the helicopter in any way
  • the stretcher attendant was in the front seat; with nobody monitoring the subject should they go into some form of distress. Since the subject’s head was out the door, there is not much they would have been able to do anyway.
  • Questions:
    • from what I remember, Air 1 is a rather heavily loaded EC-120B with all sorts of communications equipment and several cameras and spotlights on board. This doesn’t seem to be the right machine to be using for this task. An AS-350 is more commonly used for SAR, as it has a greater lift capacity.
    SAR members practice loading a stretcher across the back seat of an AS 350 B

    A better way to this is as follows:

    • a SAR member crouches in the back seat of the machine to receive the stretcher. 
    • This SAR member is wearing a harness and is attached to the helicopter using a short lanyard.
  • Doors and seat cushions are removed. 
    • doors off facilitates easy access, on one side of the machine
    • with the seats out, it’s easy to place and strap in the stretcher
  • The stretcher is loaded, head first, across the back seat of the machine
  • the stretcher is strapped to the back seat of the machine
    • you can use build-in seat belts or cords for this
  • The attendant crouches on the floor, monitoring the subject. 
    • Attendant can perform first aid in this position and monitor vitals
    • Attendant can offer comfort and support to the subject.
  • in many cases, a ground crew member accompanies the subject to provide continuity
  • Stretcher secured to helicopter using seat belts at a minimum.

    Even better is to use a machine outfitted with a stretcher kit which is installed where the front seat is. This allows doors-on flight. We used this rig during the Olympics.

    Granted that this is an exceptional situation, but as SAR members we spend our time training for exactly these types of operations; the exceptional should be ordinary for us. With a proper briefing, and some careful thinking, it’s easy to avoid this kind of mistake. 
    Training for this situation should be incorporated into yearly helicopter hover exit training.

    Note subject’s head is inside the helicopter.


    On asking around I’ve learned some more information about this rescue.

    It seems that the SAR managers had a helicopter rescue team standing by, ready to retrieve the subject; properly equipped and trained. The RCMP may have been acting outside of the ICS chain of command, or in SAR parlance, acting as Cowboys.

    In some ways, this incident is beginning to sound like the one described in this article, where a helicopter pilot decided to take part of the rescue into his own hands, with tragic results.

    One final reason why this video concerns me, and one backed up by a helicopter pilot I know; the RCMP machine seems to take off very slowly. There are a lot of variables that affect how a helicopter performs; air temperature, fuel on board, crew and cargo weight. In a briefing on this machine I attended I was told that it was heavily loaded with communications equipment including microwave transmitters to facilitate broadcast of live video back to base, and a very bright spotlight.

    It seems to me that this machine can barely take off from the river. It climbs very slowly, and I know any time I have been in a similar situation, the pilot makes haste to get clear of the trees so he can start moving forward and get some more lift. I certainly hope this was not the case.

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