At times during my career as a helicopter pilot, progression has seemed slow – as if my learning had stagnated. In aviation, this is when we can easily fall into what we term pilot complacency. And it can be a killer.

George Tonking

Thankfully, a month or two back, I received a call from Ryan Horsman, a friend and the man at the helm of Halo Aviation (one of our local air ambulance operators) that hinted at some imminent out-of-the-ordinary flying (and therefore skill development).

“George, are you sling rated?” Ryan asked.

After finishing up my licence in 2009 I remember waiting in over-excited anticipation for ten months to complete my first hour of commercial flying. After that milestone, every different rating that slowly followed, rounding off my skill set, seemed like a victory. Especially the sling rating, which was very different to anything I’d done before.

Firstly, I got to fly the epitome of French oh-la-la style – le vénérable hélicoptère Alouette III. Not only was it a learning curve on its own, but an absolute treat to be flying an iconic piece of history.

‘the inadvertent release of cargo’

“Yes, I am!” I announced with glee, as I tried to guess where his question was leading. Having been sling rated was something special to me in my evolution as a pilot.

After I’d become more au fait with the Alo, my instructor, the late Shaun Barendsen, hooked up a medium-length strop to a 220-litre barrel and away I went. Most of the learning work was done flying circuits around an airfield with said barrel dangling below, and Captain Barendsen prattling in my headphones from his position on the taxiway below. Once I’d mastered that diminutive drum, the next level up was a 500-litre “Bambi Bucket” – one of those orange bladders with high-flow release valves used in firefighting, (and also pretty puny compared to the largest ones made, at a massive 9,800-litres.) This took some mastering, but once I had learned to find the target consistently, I had enough time to mess around and release a few buckets upwind of my “patter crew.” That was probably the closest I came to a real run-in-and-bomb-release on a target with the joystick button.

With a specific skill rating like vertical lift work or sling operations, how ‘current’ you are is paramount. This includes not only when last the particular skill was performed, but also whether the pilot was skill-checked. In addition, vertical reference flying often demands that the helicopter pilot place his or her full trust in other crew members, like the loadmaster or the “patterer,” the person who, during precision hovering, acts as the pilot’s eyes on the load and the target. My most recent currency check had been done in an Airbus AS350 Squirrel with Chris Cornwell of Ultimate Heli (who has controlled many a load in Antarctica from a Bell 412 EP) as crew and with legendary pilot Buzz Bezuidenhout performing my currency check.

CRoW at work.

It turns out that Ryan was asking about my sling rating because he had been approached by one Rob Thomas to find a pilot who could help with mountain rescue and recovery training. For years, working with Proto teams on mines, I had heard of Rob, a bona fide mountain man, who has been helping coordinate mountain search and rescues throughout South Africa for close on three decades. I was, predictably, beyond keen.

Rob, fellow adventurer and medic Johan Raath, along with lover-of-the-outdoors admin guru Ettienne Koekemoer are partners in a new venture called Contracted Rescue on Wings (CRoW). The trio has managed to pull together an experienced volunteer team of skilled mountaineers, rope access experts and medics (most of whom have regular daytime jobs) to partner with them at CRoW in helping save lives in the wilderness. A few of them, however, have never been part of a rescue from the air. Rob says he owes much of his experience in heli-rescues to the brave pilots and crew of the SAAF and SAPS in whose helicopters he and his various mountain rescue teams have operated for years. Due to the scarcity of these helicopter resources now, however, CRoW has taken the initiative to seek funding from the private sector to resource the flying side of mountain search and rescue.

But wherever the resources are to be acquired, the training must go on, and I was to be their pilot for the day – the stuff of dreams for me.

We began the day with Ettienne, who heads up CRoWS’ training division, thoroughly briefing our team and theirs, to make sure we all understood the day’s objectives. Being the professionals that the team at CRoW are, Rob had compiled concise SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for the most common scenarios where patients might require back-country helicopter extraction, based on his vast experience. We asked a few questions, calmed a few nerves and headed for the flight line.

With our Squirrel rigged for the training sortie, we flew to the training area not far from our nest at the Ultimate Heliport. The simulated rescue scenarios would be accomplished with the use of a certified climbing long line rope with a patient (simulated) stretcher and rescue “jockey” attached. One problem with helicopter hooks is that they tend to be fallible to the inadvertent release of cargo. Naturally, this would be a concern to both rescuers and rescued, who would prefer not to be jettisoned accidentally. To solve this problem, a secondary strop is looped through the cabin of the helicopter. This system also allows for a third crew member to release the belly strop if needed during a snag – a double redundancy.

The first step in our training was to test the system with 200kg of weight on the primary rope, to then release it onto the secondary system and finally, at foot height, to perform a ground release using the pins in the belly strop. All worked perfectly. Another, equally important, part of the training was to introduce new rescue team members to “pattering” and rigging in a real-life helicopter rescue environment. Next, each crew member had the opportunity to experience extraction and insertion via helicopter, further preparing them for the day these skills would become lifesaving.

I learned many new skills that day and made some incredible friendships. It was humbling to see such skilled professionals training and waiting in the wings to rescue someone who has lost hope … until they hear the sound of beating rotors approaching!

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