features A day in the life of a chief aircrewman instructor

HAI Salute to Excellence Safety Award-winner Chris Sharpe tells us what it’s like to work as a chief aircrewman instructor in Guatemala.
Avatar for Chris Sharpe By Chris Sharpe | June 21, 2021

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 54 seconds.

As a non-pilot chief aircrewman (non-rated crewmember/NRCM), I have spent the past six years developing an international-standard air ambulance service in Guatemala. In my spare time, I teach local special forces and civil helicopter crews. 

Students on a course run by Black Wolf Helicopters trek along a cleared path during land survival training. All Photos by Chris Sharpe

Guatemala is a developing country, with few standards for helicopter air ambulance evacuation or helicopter rescue, so I am very fortunate that the company I work with (Helicopteros de Guatemala) — an HAI Platinum Safety Award winner in 2009 — has an extremely high work ethic and very high standards.

It’s not an easy job to be a rear crewperson anywhere, but particularly so in less developed countries. Fortunately, many of the pilots in Guatemala were trained by the U.S. military, but occasionally I still need to remind them of the benefits provided by a correctly trained and competent rear crew. The prime reason I set up my training and consultancy company Black Wolf Helicopters was to specifically teach how rear crew can be effectively integrated into day-to-day operations.

This week, I am serving as lead flight instructor for my newly designed HEMS Helicopter Essentials Crewman course. I designed the course after noticing a horrendous shortfall in training. It exists solely to make doctors, paramedics and flight nurses who work in air medical operations more confident and competent in supporting their pilot/s — and not just being a passenger. It covers mission planning, aircraft systems and safety, and what it is the pilot is doing up front!

The course includes a week of ground school, underwater egress drills, emergency breathing systems, survival drills, checklist exams twice a day, and practical work on the ramp to learn to operate safely around a helicopter (before they even sit in one). It culminates with them planning and completing a simple flight mission.

A student practices using a helicopter emergency egress device during a poolside drill.

On the penultimate day of the course, the students (current and future flight paramedics and nurses) receive a normal helicopter air ambulance “call” to attend a remote point of injury (POI).

This group probably envisioned a nice, relaxed 1.5-hour transit to the scene of injury, taking photos of the countryside, but instead, six minutes in, they were fighting against G-forces and nausea. What started as a simple planned visual flight rules (VFR) flight over the jungle ended (much to the pilot’s pleasure!) in a gut-twisting simulated autorotation.

Yes, while the flight program had land survival training starting tomorrow, we were running with a different script.

Having survived multiple crashes/ditchings, I always practice the “dress to egress” principle. Students who have not paid heed to my reminders about this would now suffer — especially as they are under the watchful eye and critique of renowned jungle survival instructor Jimmy “Jungle” McSparron.

The LongRanger is a great fit for working in Guatemala, said Sharpe, due to its small size and ability to re-role on-scene.

Their time in the wild would last the rest of the day and night, culminating in a short-haul rescue of the “crash survivors” at 7:25 a.m. (if the students displayed the emergency signals as taught).

The day of the rescue

My day begins early. I leave the house at 4:45 a.m. with a flask of tea (I am British after all), as traffic is so horrendous that if I wait 30 minutes, a journey that should take me 45 minutes becomes a four-hour trip.

I arrive at Helicopteros de Guatemala at 5:30 a.m. Normally this involves waking up both the main airport gate security and everyone else, but for some reason they are already awake today. There’s no reason for alarm, though — it’s just because the operations manager is already here. 

Helicopteros de Guatemala runs a tight ship and follows the book. So, although this course has been briefed extensively, we run a pre-flight brief; check out METAR, NOTAMs, HOGE (forecast) limits; and cover emergency procedures — and everything safety-orientated is rebriefed.

As the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared.” And this is especially true in Guatemala. Here, the term “rescue” can involve either a search-and-rescue (SAR) flight, or a critical care interfacility transport of a patient requiring automatic ventilation, sedation, and all the nightmare drug calculations. You have to be ready for anything.

The aircraft today is TG-HEC, a Bell 206L-4 LongRanger. It’s not a type that I ever came across in my previous career, but it’s an absolutely awesome airframe for Guatemala. It’s small enough to fit in some very small areas, and is easy to re-role on-scene. It’s not perfect by any means, as it has no hoist (there are none here at all), is single-engine and has no sliding door, but it works for what we need. There are other airframes available — the most common is the Airbus H125/AS350 — but as every air medical/rescue flight must be paid individually, the extra cost puts it beyond the reach of most people’s credit card. 

We adapt, write procedures and train with what we have to make it as safe as we can as a crew. 

Today is relatively easy, though — a short-haul rescue scenario, single strop with rescuer. We have three trainee helicopter SAR techs as the “dope on the rope,” eight students who want a beer, and the end-of-course BBQ. No pressure!

I’m now standing at the helicopter’s 11 o’clock position for start. Even though Helicopteros de Guatemala has designated ramp staff, I perform my own checks “every time, all the time.” I teach my students to do the same. 

The pilot in command (PIC) indicates to start engines: “Libre” (Spanish for clear), a visual check left and right, and the hand signal to start the engine, and engage rotors. Once up to takeoff power and having received the nod from the pilot, I do my normal panel and rotor head check (right side first), then, passing the nose, continue down the left side of the aircraft. The ramp guys are following and doing their own checks. I don’t mind — they are not doubting me, just doing their jobs. There is no “I” in team!

I climb into the aircraft, connect my headset and crew restraint harness, and after our pre-flight challenge/response checklist, report: “Checklist complete. Secure in the back. Clear for flight.” 

As we are doing a rescue scenario today, it is easier for me to hang out and check the left side of the aircraft (with the single pilot on the right seat). We’re clear left and above, clear for forward flight.

The pilot is Edras Barrera, Helicopteros de Guatemala’s chief pilot. We have 34,000 hours between us, so despite some language issues, through extensive ground and air training, we operate seamlessly.

We’re into the hover, and then the transition. Finally! Back to where we all love and want to be! I look back and watch the fixed-wings sitting in an orderly queue for the runway. Bless them!

Arriving at the scene

Five minutes later, we enter our mission area for the day. The HSAR techs are already on the ground. They maintained supervision of the “victims” throughout the night (out of sight), and are now preparing to do what they also love to do best.

Sharpe helps a “survivor” in a crash response scenario prepare for a short-haul rescue.

They are a short distance away from the students who are thankfully signaling their “downed bird” with their issued blue marker panels and a pyramid rescue fire as taught. They are not happy after only 18 hours in the jungle.

We land and with rotors running at idle (and after receiving “clear out, right” from the PIC), I disconnect and hop out to rig the short haul line ready for the rescue scenario. 

After we’ve followed our checklist (we challenge and respond to each stage for safety), I coil the line in the rear cabin, secure it, and load a SAR tech. Even though this is a training scenario and we know exactly where we are going, you should train as you fight (and all of those mantras we learn in the military and on social media), so we fly a short overhand right circuit and all take a good look out of the right door for risk assessment. We then return to the ground and rig for the short-haul rescue. 

The SAR tech holds the short-haul rope in his left hand. We transition into the hover, keeping an eye on the temperature and pressure. There are no warning lights, the hover in ground effect check is good, so we give a thumbs up and the SAR tech connects.

Students face the harsh reality of a post-crash jungle survival scenario.

For me, it is now is all about supporting the pilot. I’m focused on the main and tail rotor, the power available, and my guy on the rope.

This is human external cargo (HEC) work. We’re carrying someone who understands that if it goes bad and we need to save the aircraft, the three security measures in place will be cut. This is a topic that I ensure everyone understands in the mandatory ground schools we complete immediately beforehand.

The scenario then flows into a blur of jungle canopy extractions, with a constant “patter” between myself and the pilot. 

After all the students are safely recovered, the helicopter lands, and the pilot passes me any “hot debrief” notes for immediate briefing. As it is a training scenario, I don’t fly back with the helicopter, but debrief the scenario to the entire group. As part of the “just culture,” this includes my SAR techs and the students who are still learning. If it is a safety issue, everyone needs to know. Who knows, in a few years’ time, some of the students may be on active operations themselves.

Sharpe encourages his students to do their own pre-flight checks.

The SAR techs now take over and return to the training site to ensure it is cleared of all human traces. 

I sit down with a dry throat, dehydrated (it is 94 F/34 C after all), and think of all the mandatory paperwork that now needs completing — along with formal debriefs with students, pilots and SAR techs, utilizing the extensive GoPro footage. We micro-analyze everything.

The author approaches a helicopter on a ramp. He has been running his training company, Black Wolf Helicopters, since 2017.

What is the saying? Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they get it wrong.

And I’ll need to do this all before tomorrow morning, when we move into a helicopter rappel training six-monthly refresher course. There will be precision long line tests for the aircrews first, then the HSAR techs.

The cycle begins again! 

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on therotorbreak.com

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