By Nic Highfill, ThedaStar Lead Pilot
We are in the business of air medical transportation. Almost everywhere we go, we get there by flying. We do this because flying to locations has its benefits. Most notably is speed. When we fly, we can get to where we are going in half the time or better. We also do not need to deal with traffic congestion…very often. And the view…you cannot beat the view.
But just flying isn’t enough. So we fly in a helicopter. In a helicopter, our options for landing increase drastically, whether it be pre-planned or for an in-flight emergency. We do not need an airport, or a runway, or even a long stretch of road that is free of trees, cars, bridges, and poles. We can land in the parking lot of a rural hospital or in a field next to a small road. In an emergency, the pilot can land anywhere he or she feels is safe.
Although a helicopter can fit in fairly small locations, we have guidelines set forth for our safety and the safety of those nearby. If we are called to the scene of an accident, these guidelines are used to help the fire department or law enforcement officers determine the best place for us to land.
Landing zones shall be a minimum of 100 feet by 100 feet. This is to help ensure we have adequate rotor clearance from trees or other obstacles on our approach path in and to help us maintain an acceptable angle of approach. The landing zone should be fairly flat to help facilitate patient loading and enhance safety in and around the aircraft. Paved surfaces are ideal, but a helicopter can land just fine in sod, gravel, or dirt. Hard paved surfaces are less likely to catch a helicopter skid, which can cause the helicopter to roll over. Gravel and dirt surfaces are more likely to have loose debris that can be blown into the air and can cause a situation called “brown out,” where the pilot cannot maintain visual contact with the ground and surrounding areas because of the blowing dust.
Most important of all, the landing zone requires communication. The three crew members on board the aircraft are communicating among each other and with personnel on the ground. On board we are discussing the approach path in, an escape route out, and where all the obstacles are. Trees, poles, and wires do not mix well with helicopters.
From the ground, we will receive information about wind strength and direction, surface type and slope, proximity to the scene, security of the landing zone, and, most importantly, location of obstacles. Personnel on the ground might have a better view of poles and wires that are hard to distinguish from the air. They also have the opportunity to walk through the landing zone to make sure there are no hidden areas of concern or loose debris that can be blown into the helicopter, preventing us from taking off again.
Traumatic scenes truly are a team effort. Multiple agencies are working in close proximity and under increased stress to help save lives. Without proper communication, coordination is lost, errors increase, and potentially disastrous events can occur. We are truly grateful for all of our brothers and sisters on the ground that watch our back when we fly in. Their concern, hard work, and attentiveness help make sure that our landing is assured.