As night vision and other technologies have made night operations safer, interest has reawakened in allowing helicopters to fight fires, transport critically injured patients and chase bad guys after dark.
As much as helicopters add value to ground-based colleagues — search and rescue teams, police officers and more — their absence can also be keenly felt. After a fatal two-helo collision in 1977, the U.S. Forest Service barred most night operations in the huge acreage it governs.
A calamitous 2009 fire in Los Angeles County ended that era in one stroke. The cost of not risking helicopters and crews during that fire was a far greater inferno: 160,000 acres burned and two firefighters killed. Policy was changed and the ban lifted shortly thereafter. In 2010, the Forest Service declared its night flights could resume.
“Support technology, such as night vision goggles, helicopter terrain awareness, and warning systems for helicopter night operations, has evolved to where operations can be conducted with a high degree of reliability,” the Forest Service concluded.
While firefighting helicopters still rarely fly after nightfall, the revision was broadly welcomed in many other rotorcraft sectors.
Also boosting the need for nighttime ops are cultural and sociological factors. A large percentage of crime is committed or attempted when it turns dark and fleeing perpetrators, terrorism suspects, mental patients, arsonists and others vanish into the night.
Less frighteningly for nighttime rescue crews, wilderness hikers, mountaineers, nature photographers, scouts and others get lost in limited visibility. People are injured, suffer hypothermia, heart attacks, snake bites, bear maulings — not to discount feckless gun owners, fireworks-burned revelers and violent road-ragers.
Many rotorcraft are now designed for or adaptable to night missions. The world’s best-of lists vary, but typically include models from Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo Helicopters, Bell, Sikorsky, Boeing and Russian Helicopters.
Operators in different sectors acquire the aircraft in several displacements of classes. Bell alone sells about two dozen “mediums” out of the Jet Ranger mold, like the U.S. Forest Service’s own night-duty Bell 205.
Civil/general aviation operators, police and sheriffs’ departments fly various models. They can be small, like the MD 500, a version of the U.S. Army Hughes MH-6 “Little Bird;” medium-large, like the MH-60 Blackhawk and its numerous variants; and large, like Sikorsky CH-53 iterations and Boeing CH-47 Chinook variants. Extra-large includes Ericson’s S-64 Air-Crane with its 10-12 ton hoist capacity.
Some nocturnal birds may be purpose-built, others de-accessioned from official agencies for entertainment and evening tours. Nevada’s Mr. D’s offers thrill-seekers rides in its D Model MD-500s, acquired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. The Houston PD aviation unit, conversely, employs its E Model MD-500s for more serious duties. The Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS) flies five rotorcraft, the four Bell B-407s and one B-429 covering 113,000 square miles. The busy Maryland State Police Aviation Command employs all its rotorcraft to perform medevac, aerial law enforcement, search and rescue, homeland security and disaster assessment.
Meanwhile, various daylight operators want to work the night shift. One is Cal-Fire, a major California fire-management player. Spokesman Scott McLean told R&WI new helicopters were expected before long and, assuming the craft are certified and deployable with approved equipage, may become night operational.
Indeed, adjunctive gadgetry is a helicopter mainstay, even more plentiful than the airframes. As a walkthrough of any trade show glitteringly attests, the aftermarket is robust for all sectors and segments, day or night. Important safety and navigation tools include searchlights, loudspeakers, thermal cameras and night-vision goggles (NVGs).
As with many platforms, night equipage tends to be stripped-down versions of armed forces hardware. Usually boasting multiple applications, they’re often produced by the same firms, such as L3 Technologies, which sells Wescam electro-optical/infrared imagers. GPS pioneer Garmin now hawks multiple complex systems and flight deck integration tools and services.
High-intensity illumination is a worthy option for many darkside missions. An example is Boeing and Spectrolab’s SX-16 Night 30-40 million candlepower searchlight. The six-pound, remote control-focused light has a claimed one-mile “target range” and the Maryland State Police swears by theirs. Luis Castro, Boeing and Spectrolab’s marketing executive, said, “The expanded use of searchlights, EO/IR and NVG’s pave the way, allowing a range of customers to increase night operations.”
HEMS, for one, said Castro, “has seen an increase in nighttime operations, especially overseas in regions governed by EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency), followed by an uptick in firefighting requirements. Of course, law enforcement has always been active in night operations.”
Altogether, the gear helps improve night operations, giving pilots increased confidence and operators more reason to hire certified nighttime pilots, Castro said.
“Helicopters are typically first responders in metropolitan or rural areas in close proximity to them, because they can typically control a fire [for example] much faster than deployed fixed-wing aircraft,” Castro said.
Loudspeakers are often valuable for pilots flying at night. Harold (Hal) Summers, director of flight operations and technical services for the Helicopter Association International (HAI), has spent 60 years in and around helicopters. During an interview with R&WI touching several topics, he said of public address systems, “[They] make people stand back, or if there are injuries on the ground, you may need to communicate with the injured or rescuers.”
Forward-looking Infrared (FLIR), a Cold War advance, continues playing a key night role. Based on thermal imaging, specialized linked FLIR cameras feed information to fixed- and rotary-wing cockpits. They translate infrared radiation emitted from human and other heat sources into imagery, creating video output. FLIR clarifies what without it are ghostly, low-contrast and diffuse objects. Gladly, FLIR and its flight deck neighbors tease out not just humans, but cell towers, cliff faces, grain silos and wayward aircraft.
Possibly the most indispensable piece of specialized gear, though, is the night-vision goggles (NVGs). Long utilized by covert types beforehand, the mandated eyewear got its public debut in 1992’s blockbuster “Silence of the Lambs,” when moviegoers got their first glimpse of and view through the device.
NVGs are only part of the policy and regulatory landscape. FAA issues myriad directives for dusk-to-dawn rotorcraft operators and pilots, platforms and equipage. ADS-B is another federally required navigation element, and HAI’s Summers champions it.
Discussing aerial close calls, he explained, “There are all kinds of systems that point out other traffic in your area. As we switch to ADS-B, the mandate is ADS-B Out so the air controllers can see you; ADS-B In requires a screen in the aircraft allowing you to see aircraft around you that are (also) ADS-B equipped.”
Citing as an example the heavily air-trafficked Gulf of Mexico, Summers stressed, “The aircraft that are IFR (instrument flight rules) certificated — that’s key, I’m not talking about small craft that aren’t certificated for instruments — but all these aircraft … have the instruments required and [experienced, rated pilots]. All those flights now are done under instruments using ADS-B.”
Previously, Summers recalled, “the FAA and controllers, since they couldn’t see you, had to protect a 60-mile block of airspace so nobody else got near you, [making you] wait to take off until they cleared that airspace. Now with ADS-B they’re down to five miles. And versus about 12-1300 IFR flights a year in 2017 — when I ran the numbers for the offshore helicopter industry — it had risen to 26,000. They couldn’t have done it without ADS-B.”
Any discussion of night helicopters is incomplete without acknowledgement of the associated risk. It certainly exists, though not to the degree suggested by lurid, often-incomplete media accounts. And yet, largely forged by them, perceptions — that of the public, lawmakers and regulators — are powerful things.
Given the deaths of some military, law enforcement, HEMS and firefighting personnel through the years, wannabe night-duty pilots may ponder whether extra pay or prestige is worth it.
So, are accidents common? Far from it.
Medevac and HEMS rescue, a major category, is illustrative, and soberly compiled statistics belie the popular impression. According to Scotland-based Aerossurance.com, the chance of a HEMS pilot dying was 1 in 50 in 1980; today, it’s 1 in 750, a marked improvement. This, despite the increase of the HEMS fleet from 151 in 1986 to 852 in December 2016. HAI’s Summers cites similar figures, noting the great rarity of mishaps, compared to “the many, many thousands of safe transports” of injured, ill or lost people.
Finally, anecdotes suggest night ops overall are gaining some incremental traction, though registering too few blips for anyone to keep score. Summers sees little growth in the stateside industry, mostly “a lot of replacements and maybe upgrades, new platforms as they come along,” but not many new kinds of missions. Rather, he urges U.S. stakeholders to study far-sighted corporate developments in Asia.