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Vision Quest

Higher safety standards, operational benefits and added value to the bottom line.


January 26, 2011
By Matt Nicholls


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Higher safety standards, operational benefits and added value to the bottom line. For Canadian helicopter operators flying at night, night-vision technology continues to bring these and other enormous benefits on a variety of levels. And while the implementation of the technology in Canada has been slower to take than other nations around the world, there are signs interest is growing.

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Night vision technology is invaluable in enhancing the safety of a number of operations. A primary use is search and rescue (SAR). Here, Cougar Helicopters participates in a search and rescue operation at night. (Photo courtesy Cougar Helicopters)


 

“The primary use at the moment is in the military, medical and law enforcement service role – the first responders,” says Adam Aldous, president of Night Flight Concepts, a U.S.-based company offering night vision training, inspections and maintenance services. Aldous has worked with a number of Canadian firms in setting up their night-vision operations, including the RCMP, York Regional Police, and Helicopter Transport Services. “But we are seeing some other segments of the industry starting to use night-vision technology, or at least a growing interest in it.”

And while Transport Canada (TC), the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) and a select working group continue to work diligently to determine the basis for regulations and standards for NVGs (night-vision goggles) here at home, operators that have received exemptions to fly with the technology are experiencing an entirely new perspective.

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Helicopters checked in with three pilots with varying levels of NVG experience at prominent Canadian organizations to see how they are implementing NVIS (Night Vision Imaging System) technology – and finding new ways to maximize its value and effectiveness.

A Fresh Perspective: Ontario Provincial Police
For Sgt. Brian Paul and the flight crew at OPP’s aviation services department, the implementation of NVIS technology has added a new level of clarity to the operation.

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The STARS fleet is equipped with NVG capabilities and is the only civilian NVG program to regularly fly in mountainous terrain in Canada. (Photo courtesy Mark Mennie, STARS)


 

It’s been just over a year since the commencement of the OPP program and with four full-time pilots and one part-time pilot trained on NVGs for two S355F2R Twin Star helicopters, the province’s night operations are well covered.

The OPP Helicopter Unit has been patrolling the skies since 1974 out of Brampton, but now operates out of Sudbury and Orillia. Pilots annually accrue some 2,500-3,000 hours of flight time and while NVG flights represent a small portion of the overall total, night ops have been a game changer.

“I don’t want to say it’s for any one particular occurrence that we adopted night vision,” says Paul, adding that the main purpose was to enhance overall safety levels. “But it doesn’t really matter what the occurrence is, whether it’s a search for a missing person, a wanted person, surveillance, drugs, or indoor grow ops using infrared. When flying at night, it increases our safety ten-fold, one hundred-fold.”
Flying in the black hole that is northern Ontario at night can be challenging, but NVGs help make the ordeal more palatable. One limitation can be a concern, however: a pilot often doesn’t recognize intense weather conditions until they’re a potential hazard. Rain, snow and fog can reduce vision clarity, distorting what a pilot may experience. “Goggles give you more confidence to operate at night and it’s easy to get overconfident, but that’s where you can get yourself into trouble because you may fail to recognize what’s happening,” says Paul. “And if you have a goggle failure or something of that nature, suddenly you’re in trouble. So, yes, it can create a false sense of security. But this is something you train for.”

Despite potential drawbacks, NVGs are invaluable in aiding OPP missions such as search and rescue, or SAR (an element of 60 per cent of all OPP helicopter missions), drug eradication, unit support and more. The province’s eyes in the sky were front and centre at last year’s G8 and G20 Summits in Toronto and Huntsville, and Paul is quick to note two shining examples of NVGs paying dividends.

In one example, two woman and two young boys were hiking in Killarney Provincial Park last summer when they ventured off the popular trail to “The Crack.” Paul and his crew were doing night-vision training at the time and were dispatched to the supposed location of the missing party. But after circling a number of times, the FLIR operator – who was also on goggles – failed to locate a light he thought he had seen, most likely a result of dense underbrush. Fortunately, the hikers had a cell-phone and a camera, and they held up the camera and started snapping photos of the helicopter. “I was four or five miles away, but I easily picked them out with NVGs,” says Paul. “We saw them on a rock cut. . .but with the infrared, we couldn’t see them. It just showed a white blob. We eventually directed a canine unit to them, and saved them.”

In another example, a 14-year-old girl who had set her parents’ home on fire on Manitoulin Island took off and was wandering through the bush. She lit a series of tiny fires as she went, but they were so small, the OPP ground officers in pursuit couldn’t even see them. “Steve Vrbanic, our pilot, and our crew could see them plain as day,” says Paul. “The guys on the ground were five feet away from it and they still couldn’t see it.” Eventually, the search led to a nearby barn. After circling the barn on a number of occasions, the pilot located the girl after he noticed another fire in the barn . . . we never would have seen those fires without NVGs.”

OPP operations are made much easier with the help of NVGs, but in the end, it all comes down to safety. And as a new NVG user, Paul says he and the rest of the crew are blown away by its capabilities. “I still amaze myself when I’m out there and I’m looking at a green landscape, but you can see every hill, every valley, mostly every tower light (some of the new ones have LED, which NVGs won’t read). I always say, ‘I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t have this technology.’ You can’t do your job if you can’t see.”

Lighting the way for STARS
As the chief pilot for Alberta’s Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS), Ben Dixon is well aware of how critical his organization is to ensuring the safety and health of Alberta residents. Each pillar of the STARS program aims to enhance patient care, from supporting and implementing technology to helping to locate the patient faster, to educating and training key partners in what it calls the “Chain of Survival.” It is STARS’ goal to help put more time on the patient’s side – and NVIS technology has been instrumental in doing just that. (For more on STARs, see pg. 18.)

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NVGs provide pilots with outstanding detail of terrain, highlighting every hill, valley, river system and more. “I still amaze myself when I’m out there by its capabilities,” says the OPP’s Brian Paul. (Photo courtesy Night Vision Concepts)


 

Since the first mission in 1985, the STARS fleet of five Eurocopter BK-117 helicopters based in Edmonton, Calgary and Grand Prairie, has flown more than 20,000 times; since January 2004, it has been fully operational with NVIS.

“We’ve been flying with NVGs for more than six years now,” says Dixon, adding that a number of pilots have had previous NVG experience with the military and since have become STARS’ initial instructors. “Currently, there’s nothing in the CARS (Canadian Aviation Regulations) about night-vision goggles and Stephane Demers (Transport Canada) is working very hard with HAC (Helicopter Association of Canada) to get this sorted out. So, it really was at the time, ‘how do we do this?’ . . . we worked very hard and closely with TC in the early days to get the exemptions to get the program going.

“For us, really nothing had changed when we started flying with NVGs because we were already operating at night unaided. All we really did was use night-vision goggles for exactly what we were doing before unaided. It was just an added safety element to our night mission profile.”

A year after its initial foray into night-vision technology, STARS went into what it calls “advanced” mode – flying to hospitals in mountainous regions at night. The mountains west of Calgary, for example, are 11,000 to 12,000 feet high and were previously inaccessible for emergency response by the air trauma response team due to TC regulations – a subsection of CARS Air Taxi Transport 703. Now, with NVGs, STARS has an exemption that allows transport teams to venture into the rugged terrain on carefully pre-planned routes: one of many that STARS has carefully devised for NVG use and pre-programmed into the GPS of all aircraft.

“There’s no way to safely, legally or properly do it without using NVGs,” says Dixon. “It really opened up the radius from our base in Calgary at night because where Calgary is situated, a third of the area is right in the big mountains. So, pre-NVGs, that area was shut down when it was dark. Now, you’re good to go – as long as you have a pre-planned route, you’re fine.”

Like all forms of technology, adjustments are necessary to maximize the benefits of the equipment. Learning to work with NVGs is no different, notes Dixon, and one of the key challenges the STARS crew has needed to overcome is pilot fatigue. One of the refinements they have made is switching helmet brands due to excessive weight. The team also uses a focusing device for its ITT ANVIS-9 F4949 NVGs to improve visual acuity. The Hoffman ANV 20/20 focusing device gives a pilot an extra level of clarity, which can help on longer missions. With a smaller field of view already – NVGs limit the field of view to 40 degrees and eliminate a pilot’s peripheral vision requiring the pilot to move his head in a continuous scanning pattern – technological assistance is always a good thing.

“If you don’t have a good focus, a pilot may experience headaches which will decrease the amount of time you are comfortably flying with them,” says Dixon. So if you’re planning on being up all night, I would take an extra minute or two to get the absolute best focus possible. “It’s like wearing glasses with a prescription that’s just slightly off. You can do it, you can make it work, you can drive safely, but your eyes feel it after a while and you may get a headache from it. The same thing can happen with the goggles if you don’t have a good focus on them.”

With multiple years of NVG experience under its belt, Dixon says the STARS team is seeking ways to refine operations. A key focus is working with Transport Canada and developing SOPs for pilots to come up with a way to pre-plan a route into the mountains themselves.

“We’re still in the brainstorming, planning stages to try and capture all the risks associated with this. Identifying the best route through the mountains at night based on a map study has many challenges . . . once you go out and fly the route, it may not be as good as it looked on the map . . . we’re trying to come up with plans to negate those types of risks. Our next step is what I call ‘mission specific routes’ into the mountains. It might be a one-time location we never go to again, but how do we fly there and land safely at night? That’s what we are working towards.”

Once STARS gets processes finalized in the next year or so, it will be just one more way NVGs are helping put more time on the patient’s side.

NVG Green Saving the Green: MNR
Blessed with some of the world’s most dynamic ecosystems throughout its 1.1 million square kilometres, Ontario truly is “yours to discover.” Protecting its lakes and forests to ensure generations of residents enjoy – and reap the economic benefits of – these precious assets is top of mind for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) aerial services unit.

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OPP Sgt. Brian Paul says the province’s helicopter unit has transformed into a much safer organization since adopting night-vision technology just over a year ago. (Photo courtesy OPP)


 

With 12 rotary-winged pilots traversing the province in a seven-aircraft fleet (seven new NVIS equipped EC-130 B4s) from bases in Dryden, Thunder Bay, Timmins, Sudbury and Muskoka, the aircrew easily pushes close to 4,000 hours of flight time annually. And for the past six years, NVIS technology has been a key part of the ministry’s tool kit. Early fire detection, fire suppression, enforcement, SAR – it’s all made more effective with NVGs.

Don Filliter, chief pilot with the MNR, acknowledges that the benefits of operating at night are many and NVIS technology has helped make operations safer and more efficient. But he cautions would-be operators interested in implementing the technology to carefully evaluate their needs before jumping on the bandwagon.

“Goggles don’t make night day – and there are definitely peripheral vision issues,” he says. “So, if you’ve already made the decision to fly at night, then NVGs really enhance the safety . . . but if you’re getting into night flying because goggles exist, you really need to do your due diligence and some risk analysis because if you can do it in the daytime, why would you want to do it at night unless there is some huge operational advantage? It is much riskier to be out there.”

Poor weather, shadowing behind hills, pilot fatigue, possible equipment failure – while some are more likely than others, they are all possible risks that need to be accounted for, says Filliter. Thorough training programs, the ability to fly on instruments, recognizing the limitations of the technology – all help to make the transition to an NVG program risk free.

“If you read about all the EMS accidents in the U.S. and particularly with goggles, that’s what they are doing,” he says. “Because the technology is so good, they allow you to continue to push a bad
situation. If the mission is your priority, and you use the technology to the point that it fails, then that’s a company culture issue or a training issue; you just shouldn’t be doing it.”

One of the MNR’s most intriguing applications of NVGs is its work with early fire detection. While still in its infancy, early fire detection can help improve fire suppression and ultimately, reduce the costs of deploying crews and equipment.

The MNR recently completed a three-year project in concert with York University, the National Research Council and its Technology Science Program, to study the effects of lightning strikes and differentiating light sources. Results of the study revealed small fires can be detected and reliably discriminated using NVGs from distances compatible with typical daytime detection patrols. In Ontario, approximately half of all fires are ignited by lightning strikes, so developing a lightning locator system with predictive modelling should help the ministry improve its fire readiness.

“The idea of early fire detection and of infrared scanning is so you can be more efficient in recycling your crews faster and use the technology to help in fire suppression,” says Filliter. “NVGs help make all that happen.”

Make it happen indeed. While NVIS use in Canada lags behind some nations, it has proven to be a legitimate game changer for a number of prominent organizations such as the OPP, STARS and the MNR. Chances are, it won’t be long before more Canadian operators decide the time is right to see more effectively in the dark.

Cost Analysis
The operational and safety benefits of NVIS technology are significant but getting up to speed isn’t cheap. Modifying aircraft, acquiring NVGs and helmets, implementing a training program – all carry a steep price tag. But there are long-term benefits as noted by the pilots in this piece.

“It’s in the neighbourhood of a $100,000 investment,” says Keith Gladstone, COO of Ottawa’s Flight Test Centre of Excellence. Gladstone’s firm works with clients to set up programs and secure proper certification for night vision technology. “In this investment, there’s the non-recurring part – the helicopter – but after you’ve got the first two pilots trained, then really, you’re looking at roughly $30-40,000. And if you’re smart, you’ll hire a lot of ex-military guys and they will have all of this background. You may have to pay them a bit more because of their experience, but you’re still a lot better off.”

A rough breakdown of the costs, according to Gladstone includes:

  • $70,000 – based on the modification of a Bell 206 Jet Ranger to make it NVG compatible
  • $20,000 – NVGs for two pilots
  • $4,000 – two helmets
  • $20,000 – training for two pilots

Once the aircraft is properly modified, certified and you’re cleared to operate NVGs by Transport Canada (under the conditions of Op Spec 603), you now have a machine that can operate 24 hours a day, notes Gladstone. “The regulator will cringe when I say this, but you can virtually do anything. It isn’t without its human-factor issues, but then everything we do has human-factor issues. In fact, the helicopter is one big human factor issue.”

Warning Signs
Proper care of night-vision equipment is paramount to maintaining a safe operation, which is why in mid-December the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. issued a safety alert (SAFO 10022) for operators of potential deficiencies in the configuration and condition of installed NVIS equipment.

The alert cautioned “many operators of NVIS-equipped aircraft that they may not be adequately meeting the inspection and maintenance requirements of NVIS.” A new online source – NVGsafety.com – posted the SAFO 10022 bulletin, along with complementary information (NVG maintenance, articles and resources) to assist organizations understand and respond to related night vision program management issues.

The FAA findings are the result of a recent FAA’s Aviation Safety (AVS) nation-wide sampling of NVIS-equipped aircraft. FAA teams, made up of Flight Standards Service (AFS) inspectors and Aircraft Certification Service (AIR) inspectors/engineers, discovered that NVIS-equipped aircraft were frequently out of compliance with FAA NVIS requirements.

The FAA has determined it is likely that other NVIS-equipped aircraft may not be properly configured or maintained for NVG operations. They determined that “the likelihood of configuration and maintenance problems increases as aircraft continue in service after NVIS modifications.” The bulletin suggested “many operators of NVIS-equipped aircraft may not be adequately meeting the inspection and maintenance requirements of NVISs.”


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