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Rotary-wing aircraft, by their very nature, are obviously the preferred platform for search-andrescue work. Admittedly, their fixed-wing counterparts can cover more ground at higher speed, but helicopters’ ability to fly low and slow, and hover, suits them especially well for SAR.


July 9, 2007
By Ken Pole

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Rotary-wing aircraft, by their very nature, are obviously the preferred
platform for search-andrescue work. Admittedly, their fixed-wing
counterparts can cover more ground at higher speed, but helicopters’
ability to fly low and slow, and hover, suits them especially well for
SAR.

LCol
Colin Goodman, senior staff officer for SAR at air force operational
headquarters, 1 Canadian Air Division, Winnipeg, should know. Other
than basic training, his Canadian Forces flying career has been rotary
all the way, beginning in Bell CH-136 Kiowas, the light observation
platform that has been replaced by Bell CH-146 Griffon utility tactical
transports. However, most of his 5,300 hours have been at the controls
of the distinctive tandem-rotor CH- 113 Labradors, the backbone of
Canada’s SAR capacity for four decades, and then their replacement, the
CH-149 Cormorants at 442 Squadron in Comox, BC.

“When searching
in treed areas, for example, 80-90 knots is a very good speed,” Goodman
said in an interview, noting that most fixed-wing aircraft will have
long since stalled. Even the ubiquitous Cessnas, despite their
slow-speed potential, offer marginal SAR capability when loaded up with
a pilot and spotters, especially on a hot summer day.

“Helicopters
also are the ideal platform if you’re in mountainous terrain,” Goodman
continued. “Fixed-wing aircraft can do valley shoots but it’s sometimes
tough to get into tighter contours; pilots don’t like to get into
rising terrain in a box canyon. Even more so after dark, when CF
helicopter crews, equipped with night-vision goggles, can keep
searching when lives are at stake and time is of the essence.”

The
dark side (if it can be called that) of helicopters is their relative
fragility. Statistics are hard to come by but even a mild prang can
result in serious damage not only to the aircraft but, more important,
to its occupants. Rescue times become much more critical.Too often,
however, huge amounts of SAR time are wasted because pilots don’t file
flight plans. Many helicopter operations are comparatively tight-radius
and, as long as their crews don’t venture beyond 25 nautical miles, a
flight plan isn’t required. That’s in accordance with Canadian Aviation
Regulation 602.70, which stipulates that anything beyond that range
requires a flight plan to be filed with an air traffic control unit, a
flight service station or a community aerodrome radio station if it’s
VFR. Flight plans must be filed for all IFR operations regardless of
distance. However, pilots may opt for an IFR flight itinerary rather
than a flight plan per se, when the flight is partly or wholly outside
controlled airspace, or communication of flight plan information to an
ATC unit, service station or community aerodrome is inadequate.

But
there seem to be those who are determined to press their luck by not
bothering with a flight plan or itinerary even though the circumstances
put them in violation of the CARs. The result is that if they do have a
problem, even having to put down safely in an emergency, they’re
immediately outside the parameters of an official search area.

I
can hear you thinking: “Where’s he going with this? Is he going to
advocate flight plans for everything?” Far from it. Nor would LCol
Goodman. Imagine, for example, what that would imply for heli-logging
or other operations where cycles are repetitive and never really out of
sight.

But every year, considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money
are spent on fruitless or excessively long aerial searches because a
pilot didn’t file a flight plan – even when the facilities were readily
available. The mindset seems to be, “Oh, I’m not going very far and
I’ll be right back.”

The fact that there are only 1,995
helicopters on Transport Canada’s registry compared with 26,624
fixed-wing aircraft would suggest that helicopters go missing a lot
less often. In fact, Goodman could recall only a couple of searches for
helicopters over the past couple of decades, which tends to reflect the
way they are operated: at lower altitudes, lower speeds and, because of
range limitations, within a smaller radius of their departure point.

Details
of whether the pilots of those missing helicopters had filed a flight
plan are virtually impossible to come by, but anecdotal evidence
suggests that helicopter pilots are less inclined to bend the rules.
That wasn’t the case in early August when Ness Anano, an Ontario
dentist, didn’t return after a trip from Sault Ste. Marie to Marathon
via Wawa in his Cessna 172. The two legs are 140 and 110 kilometres,
some of it across the deep waters of eastern Lake Superior. There were
some suggestions that he might visit a family member in Toronto but a
baggage handler at the Sault evidently overheard him saying he was just
doing a local flight, possibly to scout waterfront property. Conditions
were VFR in the Sault but deteriorating to IFR at Marathon under a
400-foot ceiling and three-quarters of a mile visibility. There is no
record of Dr. Anano being IFR-rated and searchers were frustrated by
his failure to file a flight plan.

By the time Canadian Forces
called off the search a week later, the cost had topped $692,000. That
covered a pair of C-130 Lockheed Hercules ($4,661 an hour each) and a
Cormorant ($3,770 an hour) out of 424 Sqn Trenton, another Herc out of
435 Sqn Winnipeg, a pair of Griffons ($666 an hour each) out of 427
Tactical Helicopter Sqn Petawawa and another Griffon out of 439 Tac
Helo Sqn Bagotville. The total covered transit as well as search time
but not, obviously, the potential costs of putting those aircraft and
their crews at risk. Lose just one Herc and the bill is immediately
into the millions.

As this was being written, the dentist was
still missing and unless someone stumbles across the wreck – always
assuming Dr. Anano’s aircraft isn’t at the bottom of Superior or one of
the other countless lakes in the region – he’s destined to remain so.

No
one in the aviation community and probably few outside it really
begrudges the cost of SAR missions. Too many of the kind of missions
described above, however, should be cause for reflection – so think
about it the next time you bend the rules by foregoing a flight plan.
You run the risk of losing more than your aircraft.


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