Published on March 14th, 2015 | by FII Reader0
Irish Coast Guard – Enhancing Capabilities
By Guy Warner
Since I last reported on the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) in 2011, there have been considerable changes not only to the type of helicopter used but also to the scope of the service provided. Remaining the same are the provision of the aircraft, bases and crews by CHC Ireland (under a €500 million, 10 year contract, awarded in 2010) and also the vital role of the Coast Guard Marine Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Dublin and the Marine Rescue Sub Centres (MRSC) at Malin Head and Valentia Island.
Raw statistics for the Sligo Airport base alone tell a story. The record yearly total for missions accomplished up to 2012 was 137. In July 2013 the venerable but well-loved S-61N was replaced by a brand-new Sikorsky S-92A. Between that date and April 2014, a bare 10 months, the task has doubled, with some 270 missions having been flown. Notwithstanding the fact the unusually warm summer of 2013 brought an increase in leisure-related SAR activity, the reasons behind this astonishing increase are primarily twofold and will form the substance of this article.
(If you change the order of the aircraft registrations above to ICG, ICU, ICA, ICR, ICD the last letter of each makes up the word GUARD.)
The first reason is the introduction to service of a fleet of new helicopters. The first S-92A for the IRCG, EI-ICG, was delivered from the Sikorsky factory at Coatesville, Pennsylvania in early 2012 and spent the next six months at the Shannon Airport engaged in training and pilot conversion. The first operational mission was from Shannon in July 2012 and the aircraft transferred to Sligo a year later. Meanwhile, the remaining four helicopters, which had been re-allocated from CHC’s Coast Guard fleet in the United Kingdom were being brought up to the full Irish specification, the final example entering service at Dublin Weston in January 2014.
Given that the S-61N was designed some 50 years ago and despite the fact that it carried a considerable amount of updated avionics, it is not surprising that the S-92A is a much more capable aircraft. One of the Sligo based captains, Ciaran Ferguson, has considerable experience of both types and as much as he liked the S-61, which he describes affectionately as ‘the DC-3 of helicopters’, he is full of praise for its successor. I sat with him in the cockpit as he described the systems, while carrying out the daily systems check, which is carried out every 24 hours but which is valid for 36 hours to cover a sudden callout arising. The five panel, flatscreen, multifunction display gives the two pilots a huge amount of integrated information which serves to increase vastly their situational awareness. A typical set-up from left to right would read: 1. Primary Flight Display (PFD), 2. EuroNav digital moving map on which the programmed track is displayed, 3. EICAS, the systems screen giving read outs on engine performance, fuel state, hydraulics, temperatures and pressures, 4. the radar / nav screen with bearing and track, 5. PFD again but with an embedded EGPWS map from the powerful Honeywell I-band Primus 700 Weather Radar used in air-to-ground mapping mode. Integration with the winch operator and the winchman is considerably enhanced by the fact that the picture from the screen on the cabin console can be projected onto one of the cockpit screens. This provides a picture from the Wescam Mx15i FLIR, which is of military standard and can be used in high definition/magnification colour video and infra red modes. The crewmen’s Toughbook Ordnance Survey and Admiralty Chart based moving map is slaved to the radar and the FLIR. Another useful new feature is the tail-mounted camera, which is particularly useful when landing at a non-regular site, as it can monitor anyone on the ground who might be walking into danger or it could also be used in flight to confirm a fire or other hazard.
The avionics suite also, of course, includes EGPWS, TCAS, a dual radar altimeter and a very comprehensive radio fit including TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio), satellite communications, VHF, a Wulfsberg FM Marine radio plus a Chelton Direction Finding Homer. The autopilot, a Hamilton Sundstrand dual digital autopilot with dual flight directors, wins high praise as it can be programmed for a variety of search patterns and can be modified for varying wind conditions. It is much more user-friendly than the S-61’s and can be used within considerably tighter parameters in difficult to access locations. Interestingly, when flying in the S-92, I noticed that despite all the high technology aides available at the touch of a button, the non-handling pilot always had a folded map resting on his knee. Ciaran and the co-pilot, Chief Pilot, Paraic Slattery said that this was done to make sure that basic map reading skills were retained and that crews did not get too reliant on automation. Another human factor that they both consider to be of great importance was that CRM should fully involve the crew of four and not just the two pilots. Additionally, standard drills (SOPs) and verbage (calls) were believed to be of vital importance to ensure that there was complete understanding between the human parts of the system.
The training given when the aircraft was introduced was very thorough and in Ciaran’s words, ‘a huge learning curve to begin with; reading, discussing, understanding and then putting this into practice. Its phenomenal performance and systems provide an ongoing challenge as we learn to exploit its potential to the full. To this end the six-monthly eight hours of simulator checks in the highly realistic FAA Cat D facility at Farnborough are really valuable, as they enable us to practise coping with extreme situations.’ He regards the S-92 as a very safe helicopter to fly; it feels very robust and gives him a feeling of great security when operating in tricky situations thus reducing the crew’s stress levels, as the pilots can push the capability of the crew and aircraft without going to the extremity of their own flying skills. The Rotor Ice Protection System (RIPS) is an innovation which is greatly appreciated and allows a completely new way of thinking for rotary-wing operations. The main and tail rotors are protected to an extent which permits flying into known icing conditions down to -40c.
The twin General Electric CT7-8A 2500 shp turboshafts are another highly significant factor when considering flight safety. They each offer almost twice the power than provided on the S-61 and are also fully FADEC controlled. The S-92 can fly further and faster than its predecessor, cruising at 140 kts. With minimum fuel reserves it can fly out into the Atlantic 250-260 nms by day (220 nms by night) and have 30 minutes on station. Many gas companies are introducing what is known as a fuel card. Motor Verso explains what a fuel card is, which you may check out. When the card is used against this copter, the fuel charges would significantly be reduced. In the event of mechanical or other failure the helicopter can fly on one engine and recover to base. Top cover by a fixed-wing aircraft is highly desirable on oceanic tasks, the provision for which has been much reduced since the retirement of the RAF’s Nimrods. If the Irish Air Corps, which has two CASA-235 MPA, is unavailable then a second S-92, probably from Shannon could be launched to follow on behind and provide a welcome degree of cover.
Fuel is carried in two sponsons attached to either side of the fuselage, which hold 2500 lbs each and in a 1400 auxiliary tank in the cabin. The sponsons are designed to break off in the event of a high impact landing and all have the same breakaway valve safety feature. The sponsons also contain two 14 man liferafts with 50% overload capacity, which can be deployed automatically. More liferafts are stowed above the tail ramp. Another safety feature is the emergency floatation system which is designed to keep the helicopter upright in conditions up to Sea State 6 (20 feet waves). Indeed, crashworthiness as a whole is a notable design feature of the S-92A.
I next spoke to the duty engineers, Francie Perris (Airframe) and Pat Joyce (Avionics). Both had many years of experience working on the S-61 and agree that the advent of the S-92 has not necessarily reduced the maintenance task but has certainly changed its nature. The S-92 is a large and complex machine which requires staging either side to access the engines, gearbox and rotors but has been logically designed with regard to general accessibility for visual inspection. The bulk of the work is less to do with mechanical rectification than monitoring key indicators, analysing data and preventing component failures occurring. Information is generated by the Health and Usage Management System (HUMS) and after every flight is downloaded from a data card to a computer for analysis and troubleshooting. Pat and Francie agreed that their greatest challenge was to organise a maintenance schedule around flying that is not and cannot be scheduled by virtue of its very nature. There is still room, however, for experience and an engineer’s ‘feel’. Just as an old time mechanic knew when an oil leak was simply typical of a helicopter working normally or when a fault could be rectified by a swift tap in the right spot, so the modern engineer needs to be able to sense when a defect indication is not a defect but simply a computer glitch giving an erroneous error message. Given all the expensive technology, sometimes the same fix is required as for a home PC – switch it off and switch it on again. When asked, however, both expressed a preference for the S-92.
The second major reason for the huge increase in activity is the adoption of a new role: HEMS-STEMI (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service – ST segment elevation myocardial infarction, which is the most serious type of heart attack). Both the winch operator and the winchman are trained to Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council (PHECC) paramedic standards. Winchman, Conal McCarron, a former HSE ambulance paramedic before being employed by CHC, showed me around the casualty treatment station in the spacious cabin, which is set up like an ambulance. Standard equipment includes a LifePort three stack stretcher system – basket type stretcher for winching, combi board which can be used as a spinal board or a scoop stretcher; HEMS stretcher for Ambulance or hospital transfers, 3 Braun syringe pumps for administering fluids and medication, an Oxylog 3000 plus ventilator for use in cases of respiratory arrest and when carrying out inter-hospital Intensive Care Unit transfers, a LifePak 15 monitor/defibrillator and a FR2 portable defibrillator in case of need in mountain rescues or perhaps when giving aid to a pilgrim stricken on the barren slopes of Croagh Patrick. As well as cardiac patients, the service also covers attendance at major road traffic, rail incidents, persons in inaccessible areas and any other injuries or illnesses where there is a significant risk to life. Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe able to provide HEMS round-the-clock and it is this capability which the IRCG is now able to provide. It is also noteworthy that the S-92s are supplemented by the Irish Air Corps. Since June 2012 a daylight Emergency Aeromedical Service (EAS) has been operated under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Department of Defence and the Department of Health. An AgustaWestland AW-139 has been stationed permanently at Athlone Barracks in the Midlands and can bring a Health Service Advanced Paramedic quickly to the scene of a severe trauma.
Just as I had finished talking to the engineers a message was received from MRSC Malin Head requiring a swift departure to attend a medical emergency. It took just on 20 minutes for Rescue 118 to fly from Sligo Airport to Donegal Airport at Carrickfinn. My first impression of the S-92 was that it was certainly very smooth in flight as compared to any other helicopter I had experienced, apart from the EH-101 Merlin, with much less vibration-induced fatigue due to the electro-mechanical dampening system. This quality, of course, is very helpful in reducing stress on both casualties and the crew attending them. At Carrickfinn an ambulance was waiting a few yards away just by the terminal building, ready for the transfer on the HEMS stretcher of the patient, who had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. The rear ramp of the S-92 allows easy access and obviates the need to lift a casualty from one stretcher to another, moreover the high-mounted tail rotor makes loading safer. The initial tasking was for a person suffering a STEMI heart attack but when the winchman recognised the patient was actually suffering from a stroke, a very rapid discussion took place between the crewmen, the advanced paramedic accompanying the patient, University Hospital Galway (which is a tertiary referral centre for Cardiology), Letterkenny General Hospital and MRSC Malin Head. It was decided that as time was of the essence it would be better to fly the short distance to Letterkenny General Hospital rather than make the longer journey to Galway. Within 10 minutes of arrival at Carrickfinn, we departed for Letterkenny and in a further 10 minutes landed on the compact hospital helipad. With the patient rapidly transferred, it was time to demonstrate the excellent transition from vertical ascent to forward flight of the S-92, with no requirement for any nose down attitude to gain lift.
Back at Sligo Airport a re-fuelling tanker was waiting, part of a dedicated team of airport staff which supplies essential and much valued support to the operation. There was time to have a quick bite to eat before the activity programmed for the evening, a liaison visit to Coast Guard personnel, half an hour’s flying time away at Westport, Co Mayo, to familiarise them with the helicopter. In an hour and a half on the ground the group was given a comprehensive tour and equipment demonstration. Winch Operation Gerard Fagan extolled the virtues of the double hoist, which provided a back-up in the event of one failing. Each could deploy 300 feet of cable, with winch speed of 325 feet per minute. Additionally an extra searchlight had been fitted to the hoist mounting which was proving very useful. From his position at the cabin door, the winch operator could also control the helicopter with limited authority when in the hover – 15 knots forward / aft / left / right over the speed selected by the pilot – a very useful facility when over a tricky site as the pilots would not be able to see anything of it from the cockpit. We had landed on the local Gaelic Football field and Paraic took this opportunity to explain that a network of suitable emergency sites was being surveyed and photographed all over Ireland, at which a rendezvous with the Coast Guard or an ambulance could be planned. Local football fields often had floodlights, which were a boon in night operations. The use of ad-hoc sites in a field or other clear space are, of course, part of the job but given the multiplicity of wires of one sort and another stretching across the landscape, the more pre-surveyed sites the better as far as the crews are concerned. The provision of an integral auxiliary power unit (APU) greatly increases the S-92’s flexibility of operations away from base.
When it came time to depart from Westport, the plan was to winch the Coast Guard personnel two at a time straight up and straight down. I was asked if I would like to go up first and then stay in the cabin. This exhilarating experience certainly gave me a graphic demonstration of the only quality of the S-61 which outscored the S-92. The downwash from the four fully-articulated, composite construction, tapered blades is phenomenal. Winching techniques have been adapted and a higher hover is favoured. On this occasion, to facilitate speed of changeover the hover was maintained at about 40 feet. It was also hand flown, assisted by efficiency of the main rotor blades and also the tail rotor configuration, which is canted at 20 degrees and acts to reduce nose-up attitude in the hover. Walking towards the waiting strop was something of a physical effort. A hi-line was deployed to reduce the pendulum effect and prevent swing and spin as the winch and its burden ascended.
On the way back from Westport to Sligo Airport, Conal tested the 30 million candlepower Nitesun II XP searchlight, which he advised can be used down as low as 40 feet. He also demonstrated the Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS) which linked a selected target on the FLIR camera to the cabin moving map display and the pilots’ radar screen, again enhancing crew integration and search efficiency. We also discussed the underslung load role; a cargo hook located in the belly of the aircraft, allows loads up to 8000lbs to be carried. This capability allows the Coast Guard to utilise the aircraft to respond to marine pollution incidents within the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
I was most impressed by the equipment and skills which I saw in action, as well as by the obvious dedication of a tightly knit, quietly proud team. A summary of the current position as made by several of the crew is that the S-92 can do a bigger and better job, more efficiently than was possible before. A further important enhancement is in the pipeline, beginning in autumn 2014. Night Vision Goggle (NVG) equipment will be introduced, with the aim of being fully established across the fleet within 18 months.
The author wishes to express his sincere thanks to all those mentioned in the text and also Derek Flanagan at Malin Head and Ger Hegarty in Dublin.