CFS Press

Aquatic Helicopter Overview


It is generally agreed that helicopters are an effective tool for search and rescue. The operable word here is TOOL. Helicopters are neither the panacea for all problems, nor are they the ultimate solution. They are a tool, with benefits and risks. It is generally agreed that in the field of aquatic rescue, helicopters are certainly at the high-risk end. While helicopters effect many rescues and other missions each year, there are still a substantial number of mishaps, some of these spectacular, during rescue operations.


The uses of helicopters in aquatic rescue operations compared to ground uses is relatively new. Ground techniques used by helicopters have been developed over the years particularly by the military and later by civilian rescue organisations around the world. TV reality shows, rescue and EMS publications and national conferences have all reflected a growing interest in the exciting aspects of helicopter rescue. 1. Unfortunately there are a substantial number of mishaps during helicopter operations each year involving water, particularly moving water. The problems start when established land helicopter techniques are attempted over moving water. Too often, the inappropriate helicopter crew, both in training and equipment, is called upon to make a technical aquatic rescue, attempting things they never try under ordinary circumstances. 1. Aquatic Helicopter Rescue/Operations is defined as helicopter usage over water. The uniqueness of the water environment compared to establish land practices has developed definitive working protocols.

Incidents-case studies

Recent incidents of helicopter accidents are an unfortunate reminder of the dangers inherent in such rescue operations. In Texas; a victim falling to her death while being short hauled from a flooded river. Los Angeles; a victim falling more than 100 feet, but surviving while being short hauled from a flooded river. A winch and short haul rescues in Southern California, both of which ended successfully despite uncontrolled spinning of rescuers and victims. A fire-fighter/air crewman falling to his death at the conclusion of a water rescue operation. A kayaker becomes trapped at the base of a low-head dam in rural Texas. An Army MAST helicopter despite not being trained in aquatic rescue techniques, used a Forest Penetrator, originally designed to penetrate jungle canopy. In this instance, however, rescuers were dealing with the hydraulics of a low-head dam. When the helicopter attempted to dangle a rescuer close to the face of the dam, the rotor wash pushed him away. The helicopter crew then decided to "troll" with the penetrator, pulling the rescuer through the water to the victim. The lightly dressed rescuer—a 19-year-old on his first mission—manages to grab the victim. Both however, were suffering from hypothermia and the rescuer was not wearing a personal floatation device. With the victim desperately holding onto the rescuer, the helicopter lifted from the river and, to the applause of shore-side rescuers and bystanders, started to move them to the bank. Suddenly, the victim falls 70 feet from the Penetrator, sustaining fatal injuries.

In British Columbia, history has shown us the uses of helicopters in water environments. In the late 1980's, high profile commercial rafting accidents occurred, resulting in many deaths. Transportation of Paramedics, Rescue and Police personnel was common place and water rescues with helicopters were attempted. Past countless Flood Zones in BC, resulting in numerous aquatic sorties operations. A Department of Fisheries officer being rescued (short hauled by helicopter using a long line with a net) after a boating accident in the Fraser Canyon. Transportation by helicopter of divers to a diving accident site. A landing of a helicopter on what thought to be frozen ice on a river, resulting in a dynamic roll over, and one fatality. Although most helicopter operations around water have been successful without an incident to date; "Luck is not a good stand-alone management Tool".

Preplanning and Training

There are two obvious ways to reduce the risk involved in helicopter aquatic operations to acceptable levels; preplanning and training. Unfortunately, there is a sad lack of published information and established standards in both of these areas. The absence of preplanning for helicopter operations over water seems to be a major contributor to many of the rescue accidents involving helicopters.1.

Too often, the inappropriate helicopter and crew is called upon to make a technical aquatic rescue—finding themselves taking unacceptable risks in response to the pressure of events. Many times attempting things they would never try under ordinary circumstances.1.

Issues seldom addressed are pilot and crew training in preparation for ditching in the water or, indeed, the idea of over-water operations at all. This is especially true of areas in the continental interior, yet ditching is a distinct possibility for any helicopter engaged in swiftwater rescue operations. Crews who expect to engage in this type of operation should have appropriate aquatic personal protective equipment and crash survival training, (especially "dunker" training) since helicopters have a nasty habit of inverting when they hit the water. In addition, few helicopter pilots, (if any in B.C.) have the training and knowledge to understand and address the vertical reference flying problems for short-hauls and vertigo problems caused by hovering over moving water. As well, air rescue crews are not trained for swiftwater helicopter deployment situations.


While many agree on the different ways helicopters can be used for rescue, most experts regard aquatic helicopter rescue operations to be the highest risk. In British Columbia, history has shown us that helicopters," Has", "Is", and "Will" be used for over water helicopter rescue/operations. Special attention must be directed at proper preplanning and training. The uniquiness of the water environment compared to land has developed definitive protocols. Let us address the need with professionalism, accountability and be pro-active before the incident happens.


Michael Schoenbaechler

Member; Helicopter Safety/HFRS Working Group

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