|Outdoor Article of the Month - September 1999|
Helicopter Safety during Heli-ski Operations
© 1999 Cyril Shokoples
This briefing contains specific information that may vary from operation to operation and helicopter to helicopter. Be sure to get a proper briefing specific to the operation and helicopter you will be skiing with.
Normal Operations and Special Concerns
Before a day of helicopter skiing begins, a lot of flight safety concerns must be addressed. Each morning during a meeting of the guides and pilots, a general operational plan is discussed. This plan takes into account weather, flight safety, snow safety and operational considerations. There will also be a backup operational plan in case conditions change. While flying the guide and pilot will discuss the next landing site and will determine where it is safe to land based on cloud, wind, temperatures, group weight and other operational considerations. Each day decisions are based on safety first. Once the safety issues are addressed, guides strive to take their guests to the best possible skiing. There are a number of issues that affect where helicopters can land:
Since your guide and pilot cannot change the weather or any of the other factors listed above, it is best for you to relax and realize that all these factors and more have been taken into consideration before you land on a given run. On days when the morning weather is questionable, they may delay departure to see if the weather improves. If they cannot fly because of weather considerations, you will likely be refunded for the skiing that you have paid for (based on the companies refund policy, of course.) When you go heli-skiing, it is always a good idea to be aware of the companies' refund policy.
1. Can I bring my small pack (knapsack) with me? - Guests are often asked that they not bring a pack with them when they ski. There is no room on the helicopter for extra luggage and packs add weight to the helicopter, which reduces safety margins. There is usually no need to bring food or drinks, as that is normally provided as part of the service. If you feel you must bring some extra items, ask your guide if there is a special guest pack you can carry. One guest pack is often carried by each group to supplement the safety equipment carried by the guide. The guest pack may contain a lightweight collapsible shovel, avalanche probe, small first aid kit, spare hat and spare gloves.
2. Can I bring my Avalanche balloon (Avalanche airbag)? - The gas canister contained with an avalanche balloon is classed as hazardous material in Canada and cannot legally be carried in the same flight as passengers.
3. Commercial airplanes land at major airports all the time when it is cloudy. Why can't helicopters land on the mountains tops when it is cloudy? - The discussion above explains that helicopter flying in the mountains cannot be done on instruments alone and must be done according to Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Even modern GPS systems cannot make it safe to land in the mountains when visibility is reduced by cloud or fog.
On your first morning of helicopter skiing, you will attend a number of safety briefings. One of the first briefings is how to bundle your skis for loading them into the helicopter. If you have a snowboard, there is no bundling required! The information below is similar to the briefing you will receive before you go skiing. Particularly important items are in upper case.
Bundling skis and snowboards
When you come to the bottom of each run, your guide will stop 10 to 20 meters (10 to 20 yards) back from a black stake with a red flag on it. The helicopter may or may not be there yet. In any case, your guide has chosen a safe place to stop based on communication with the pilot. DO NOT SKI OR SNOWBOARD PAST YOUR GUIDE! This is a rule to be followed all day long in all situations. Bundle your skis together tightly as you were shown at the first briefing. Snowboarders should remove their boards and if your snowboard has high back bindings, fold them down.
Approaching when the helicopter is at the landing site
When it is safe to do so, your guide will make a make a path to the landing area or helicopter. Always approach the helicopter from the front unless specifically told to do otherwise by your guide. NEVER approach the helicopter from the rear! Hot jet exhaust gases and an invisible tail rotor are hazards in the rear of a helicopter and you should never move behind the passenger doors or ski basket for any reason. Follow exactly in your guide's footsteps. DRAG YOUR SKIS BY THE TIPS AND DO NOT LIFT THEM UP FOR ANY REASON. BE SURE TO CROUCH AS YOU APPROACH THE HELICOPTER. Don't carry your skis over your shoulder! Snowboards should be carried held firmly against the body with one hand between the bindings and the other holding near the tip. Your guide will shown you the correct method.
This is the way skis and boards are handled regardless of whether the main rotor is spinning or not. The rotor may begin turning unexpectedly, so by always keeping your skis / board low, you will never have to worry in that regard. Hand your skis or board to the guide without lifting them. The guide will load the skis and snowboards. Do not go to the rear of the helicopter behind the guide.
You must now proceed to the other side of the helicopter where passenger loading takes place. On the front of the helicopter you will see one or two tubes sticking out. These are called pitot tubes. They are for measuring the air speed of the helicopter. YOU SHOULD STAY ONE METER (ONE YARD) AWAY FROM THE FRONT OF THE HELICOPTER AS YOU WALK AROUND. These tubes are heated and can burn or melt your clothing. They are also at eye level when you are crouching down. If they are used as a handle and get broken, the day of skiing is over and the helicopter will be forced to return to the base for repairs.
Procedure if the helicopter is NOT at the landing site
Your guide will make a make a path to the landing area. Follow exactly in your guide's footsteps. Drag your skis by the tips or carry your snowboard as shown to where the guide is standing. The guide will stack the skis and boards in a very specific fashion to be sure they will not get blown away and are easy to handle when the helicopter lands. The guide will then position you a specific distance away from the pile of skis and the entire group will crouch down in a huddle. The helicopter will now land between the group and the guide. After the helicopter lands, the designated door person for your group will open the door.
While the group enters the helicopter, the guide loads the skis and boards into the basket. Once this is completed, the guide will come around to the passengers side and close and lock the door after everyone has gotten in. In some operations a designated guest closes and locks the door. The guide then sits in the front of the helicopter next to the pilot.
Entering the helicopter
When you are on the passenger's side of the aircraft, wait for a signal from the pilot that it is OK to enter. When instructed to do so, you may open the door and begin entering the helicopter. If you are not familiar with the operation of the door, the guide will show you how it functions. Open the door gently until it stops. Never slam the door in either direction. There is often a vertical handle and a strap for you to grab on to as you enter. Kick your boots together to remove some snow, but DO NOT KICK THE STEP OR HELICOPTER! Carefully step up on the step and move to the farthest available seat. Do not worry if snow gets into the helicopter with you. It happens every day and is not a problem!
You must alternate back and forth between the front and rear facing seats in order for everyone to be able to enter without difficulty. When you have found your seat, you should buckle up your seat belt and be sure it is snug. Then help the next person with their seat belt.
YOU MUST LEAVE YOUR SEAT BELT FASTENED AT ALL TIMES DURING FLIGHT. It is OK to take pictures while flying, but SMOKING IS NOT ALLOWED. Do not scrape or push on the windows. They are often part of the emergency exit system and designed to come out if you push on them! Please do not stamp your feet on the floor.
Exiting the helicopter
Do not remove your seat belt until your guide has opened the door and motioned you to exit. Be sure you put you hat and gloves on BEFORE you exit. Also tightly hang onto any other personal items. The wind around a helicopter can easily blow loose items away. Slowly and carefully exit the helicopter. Remember that the floor and step may be slippery.
The guide will position the first person about one and a half meters (five feet) away from the helicopter, in the pilot's view. The rest of the group will then huddle around this person and remain crouched down and close to the helicopter. The door person in your group will close and lock the door and give the pilot the "thumbs up" signal. While the group is getting out of the helicopter, the guide goes around to the other side to unload the skis. When the guide also gives the pilot a "thumbs up", the pilot flies away from the group. The group must stay crouched down until the helicopter has taken off and is a safe distance away.
Having a helicopter take off when it is only one or two meters away from you is a very exciting part of heliskiing BUT it is vitally important that you do not move away from the group huddle for any reason. If you have a hat, glove or any other item blow away from you, DO NOT chase after it. We land in mountainous terrain. You could be running off the edge of a cliff or uphill into the rotors. Once the helicopter leaves, tell your guide and they will determine if it is OK to retrieve the lost item safely.
There is no smoking in or around the helicopter, or near where fuel is stored. If you want to smoke, please ask your pilot or guide where an acceptable location would be.
Emergency Procedures - Bell 212
Within each helicopter are one or more safety cards which graphically shown emergency procedures and exits. You are encouraged to review the safety card during flight.
Each helicopter has a number of emergency exits that you should be familiar with. The main emergency exits for the passengers are the windows. Each side facing window in the rear of the helicopter is an "Emergency Pop-Out Window" designed to easy be removed by pushing on the window on any of the four corners. Since they are designed to come out this way, it is best not to lean against the window during flight or scrape the windows with your hands or gloves. (NOTE: Not all helicopters are equiped with pop out windows. Some may require operation of a special emergency handle.)
If it is not possible to exit via the window on the side facing seats, you can join the rest of the passengers in the main compartment by knocking down the back of the seat directly to the right (forward) of the rightmost passenger. This allows access to all of the other emergency exits.
If all of the exits in the passenger compartments are blocked, the passengers can also exit via the front of the helicopter where the guide and pilot sit. To do this easily, remove the headrests separating the compartments by pulling on the attached wire and lifting up. The emergency exit system in the front of the aircraft often consist of a "T shaped handle" (usually painted red) which is pulled up. This removes the attachment for the door and the door falls off.
If the helicopter comes to rest on it's side, one set of emergency exits may be blocked and the other set of exits will be above your head. In an orderly fashion, have the uppermost people push out the Pop-Out Windows. The top person should undo their seat belt and then exit. Each person should follow, one at a time. To assist in exiting, the seat legs form a ladder to climb out of the helicopter. They are usually brightly painted to draw your attention to this. In some helicopters there are straps on the roof which also assist. Some models of helicopter may actually have a ladder mounted in the roof.
It is common to have a fire extinguisher mounted next to the guide and pilot and an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) located just behind the pilot's head.
Emergency Procedures - Aerospatiale A Star - "B2"
Within the helicopter are one or more safety cards which graphically shown emergency procedures and exits. You are encouraged to review the safety card during flight.
The helicopter has a few simple emergency exits that you should be familiar with. The main emergency exits for the passengers are the doors. First try each door for normal operation. If they will not open normally, there is a brightly painted handle near the front of the door protected by a plastic safety catch. Remove the plastic and pull back on the handle. This will remove the attachment for the door and the door will fall off.
There is a fire extinguisher mounted next to the guide and pilot in the front of the aircraft and an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) is located in a special compartment marked by a notice.
There are several special considerations when flying in the B2 helicopter. (This helicopter is often used for small groups and private groups.) The B2 is a first class helicopter, but space is limited, Enter and exit slowly, one at a time. There is never a rush to get in, so it is best to wait until the person in front of you has fastened their seat belt before you enter the helicopter. Please do not lean against the windows during flight or scrape the windows with your hands or gloves.
The B2 helicopter is made of lightweight composite materials and is easily damaged. Do not kick the helicopter or stamp your feet on the floor. If you are seated directly behind the pilot, be aware that several flight controls are just in front of your feet. They are protected by a special guard, but it is possible for you to kick the controls if you are not paying attention. Also be aware that the B2 helicopter rotor blades are closer to the ground and crouching is absolutely essential when approaching the helicopter while it is running. As with all of our helicopters, NEVER go to the rear of the helicopter.
A last word on Safety
It is important to discuss and review these safety issues each morning, not because anyone expects to have a mishap, but rather because it is far better to be prepared so that everyone knows how to react in routine situations, loading and unloading, as well as in emergencies. This enhances the safety of all of the passengers, the guides and the pilots. Even if you have experience in helicopters, you should pay attention to the safety briefings so that you can behave appropriately around the particular model of helicopter you will be using and make your day as safe as possible.
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