One of the most recent challenging call-outs down under took place 37km off Cape Brett, not far from New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. The AW169 came to the aid of the crew of a yacht that had sank in swells of up to 10 metres.
Rescuers battled 50-knot winds in search of a deployed life raft and crew. Thanks to the incredible dedication of the Auckland Westpac Rescue crew and the impressive performance of the AW169, all four crew members were winched on board. Tragically, one sailor did not survive. This mission and many others underline the demanding and vital work of helicopter rescue crews.
With over 20,000 rescue missions since its establishment in 1970 and the world's first ever civilian surf rescue helicopter service, the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2020. Today the service faces new challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic, leveraging all new technologies and mission capabilities delivered by the Leonardo AW169 light intermediate helicopter.
With quality and mission effectiveness recognised by the aeromedical community at international level, the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust (ARHT) is committed to providing and developing a highly efficient EMS/SAR service for the benefit of the greater Auckland, Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel communities. The ARHT comprises three helicopters, two of which are AW169s introduced in recent years, and a rapid response vehicle based at its Ardmore Airbase headquarters.
Talking of the AW169, ARHT Chief Pilot, Roger Hortop says, “It is really proving a strong enabler to bring us into a new era of helicopter rescue operations. We’ve a few pilots with an AW139 background, a world leader, so they appreciate commonalities with the AW169 but also the special features that the AW169 offers (compared to its bigger brother) for EMS operations ideally suited for New Zealand.
“Synthetic vision is embedded within the AW169 cockpit and it features touch-screen capable controls. The helicopter offers crew significantly more cabin space and superior avionics technology with a modern glass cockpit compared to the helicopter we had before. The AW169 has a modular EMS cabin interior layout and rescue hoist on the right hand side. Key to the AW169’s flexibility is the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) mode, which enables crew to shut down the rotors on the ground but continue using power on-board. Cabin space makes a massive difference for our medical teams.
“Also, in Visual Flight Rules (VFR) operations, even the cabin offers great visibility for SAR. In Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) operations, it helps us doing what we need, day and night, with Night Vision Google (NVG) technology. The modern all-electrical retractable landing gear contributes to fast forward flights when even a few minutes count to save lives but, at the same time, it’s rugged if we need to operate on unprepared terrains and gives us the flexibility we need, no matter where we need to land.”
During the Covid-19 crisis, global EMS operators were asked to adopt special safety measures to ensure the highest safety standards for those on board on a mission and adhere to a new challenging situation and New Zealand was no exception. Roger Hortop says, “We’ve adopted some measures to ensure pilots and crews on board the AW169 can operate and fly safely. These include basic and essential tools such as masks and sanitizer gel but also implementing more specific measures such as separating the cockpit from the cabin with the help of a special curtain and adopting an interior layout that supports social distancing - leveraging the outstanding versatility of the aircraft’s EMS configuration.
“The rear side of the cabin and baggage compartment allow for the transportation of a diverse range of equipment depending on missions. One of the main advantages of the AW169’s specially designed cabin is the smooth transition of patient care to the hospital once on the ground. The patient’s stretcher can be moved complete with life-saving oxygen, ventilator and monitoring equipment attached, ensuring a seamless transition of both patient and vital data between the two healthcare environments.”
Concerning aircraft availability and support services, Maintenance Controller/ Engineer Fraser Burt adds, “For technical support we benefit from a Technical Representative from Leonardo at our base, support services coming from Australia and full coordination with the Logistics Hub and Engineering in Italy. Spare parts are both available onsite or come from Leonardo’s hubs when needed. Leonardo’s technical people have helped to adapt to the Covid-19 emergency with specific rules for the cleaning and safety of crews on board for HEMS operations. The AW169 is a new generation aircraft with a true open architecture and great growth potential. It is fully meeting our continued search for improvement in everything we do.”