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Managing hoisting risk: a team skill

Jun 06, 2023

When the risks of hoisting can prove fatal, teamwork is ultimately the best way to prevent more accidents. Alex Pollitt draws on personal experience to discuss the aspects of teamwork that improve safety

I have a friend who has fallen 50 feet into the sea from a helicopter while hoisting. That may sound like a pretty careless thing to do, but the fact of the matter is that for anybody whose job it is to descend on a wire cable from a helicopter in flight, it will always be an occupational hazard – if not the ultimate occupational hazard – associated with an activity that offers many others beside. Fortunately, not only did he survive to tell the tale, he is now back on the job, hanging out of helicopters.

When it’s done well, helicopter hoisting provides a supreme example of team dynamics, coordination and communication. Consequently, when things go wrong, whatever the circumstances, it is also a team responsibility. That’s the nature of a true team activity. I make this point first because when you consider what makes a helicopter crew successful in controlling and mitigating the multitude of potential hazards involved, it begins and ends with their ability to put their skills together as a team.

I wasted no time in gaining first-hand experience of this myself during piloting my very first live hoist rescue to a moving vessel. It was an episode that taught me a salutary lesson in just how fast things can go wrong. Early on a dark night off the south coast of the UK, we were tasked to a fishing vessel underway, with nobody apparently on board. On the way out to the vessel our searchlight failed, leaving us with only the struggling night vision goggles and a powerful hand-held spotlight to illuminate the deck. I was metaphorically to be dropped in the deep end! The vessel was completely unlit having been seemingly uncrewed for several hours and, when we arrived on scene, it was motoring away in a steady lazy right-hand turn. There weren’t many obvious choices for a transfer area, so having discussed our options, we decided that the most obstacle-free area to place the winchman was on the cabin roof, and we proceeded to attempt a dry run to assess references. The dummy transfer went remarkably smoothly, so without further delay we progressed with the live transfer. On this second run-in, I lost references on the turning vessel just as we came over the top, and rapidly drifted forwards, trawling the winchman, still attached to the hook, into a mast just forward of the cabin, tangling him and the hoist cable in the rigging. Luckily for me, he had the agility and the presence of mind to free himself and the hook before the situation became critical, and under the calm and controlled conning of the hoist operator, I was able to re-establish a hover.

Mario Pierobon examines the rescue process of hoist cable management – detailing the inherent dangers of this crucial procedure

What surprised me more than anything was that the whole sequence had happened in the blink of an eye. At the time, I could do little more than react to events and depend upon the trust I had in the abilities of the crew I was flying with. I have a citation in my logbook from the events of that night, mainly thanks to the efforts of other members of the crew. I am not particularly proud of the part that I played in it, but it did demonstrate to me the maxim that experience is something that you gain moments after you need it. The early lessons that I took from that flight have stayed with me ever since.

A 19x7 winch cable is made up of 19 bundles of seven strands of wound wire. Of these 19 bundles, seven are organized into an inner core, with another 12 bundles woven around the core binding the cable together. This arrangement makes it incredibly strong and resilient, owing to 133 separate strands of wire bound together to share the load. It can give a standard 3/16-inch diameter winch cable an ultimate static load of a remarkable 1,500kg. The anatomy of the winch cable and the way it offers a capability far beyond the sum of its parts provides an analogy for how we can successfully and safely work together as a crew when hoisting.

Fig 1: Close-Up of a 19x7 Cable

Just as the winch cable binds together its wire, the core elements of hoisting operations are made up of the interaction of seven strands of competency. These core competencies will look familiar to anyone in aviation and are made up of a mixture of technical and non-technical skills. The model (Fig 2) is shown, and the competencies are explained with examples of how we use them while hoisting.

A helicopter hoist operation cannot be an individual activity, so these competencies cannot function in isolation. As with the design of the cable, the seven core competencies are bound together by one encompassing competency: that of teamwork. Hoisting is the ultimate full crew flying task where team responsibilities – and even leadership – can move around fluidly between crew members during the mission. A crew depends upon each other’s knowledge, skills and abilities to achieve a goal and avoid the many hazards that the activity can expose. If you have the chance watch a well-trained crew hoisting, you will notice how the communication, division of workload, and awareness of the pilots, hoist operators, rescuers or other human external cargo fuse to create a single interdependent unit working together to complete a specific task.

An open-source review of accidents from around the world in the last 10 years reveals there were 15 incidents while hoisting that led to fatal or severe injuries to crew members or casualties in the act of being rescued. Nine of these were falls. That’s an average of nearly one person a year being killed falling from the helicopter or the cable. The real numbers are likely to be higher. Other significant incidents included blade strikes, cable snagging, cable failure, dropped objects and aircraft emergencies while hoisting.

These are just the tip of the hoisting accident pyramid. The often-cited ‘Bird Triangle’ – named after safety researcher Frank E Bird’s analysis of 1.7 million industrial accidents – describes a ratio showing that beneath these 15 accidents that resulted in death or serious injury lie many thousands of other events of lesser gravity (Fig 3). Despite their less severe outcomes, it is here that we should be looking for the best opportunity to effectively control the risk associated with the activity.

Fig 2: Cable Skills Model

In 2003, another study was conducted that suggested an even larger difference in the ratio of serious accidents and near misses. It found that for every fatality, there are at least 300,000 instances of risky behaviors – activities that are not consistent with training, standard operating procedures or safety procedures. That’s a lot of opportunities to identify and trap the smaller threats and ‘gotchas’ before they develop into more serious outcomes.

In helicopter hoisting, an awful lot can go wrong if you let it. Some examples that spring to mind can be found in Fig 4, although this is not an exhaustive list and I’m sure that there are plenty of others. Part of the human factors problem is that our brain can’t really be expected to assess, react to and address such a wide range of potential hazards in a consistent manner. We tend to latch on to what is salient to us based on past experiences, availability or training. Furthermore, the threat that we anticipate is unlikely to be the one that gets us!

I once carried out a case study in threat and error management where crews were told nothing more than the tasking details for a rescue flight requiring a hoist extraction. They were given information on such items as crew experience, weather, aircraft, equipment, and the nature and location of the task. I told them that the flight ended in an accident but left it to them to predict the cause based on what risks they perceived from the information given.

What I saw was a significant difference in predictions based on the individual’s role in the crew. The different experiences and perspectives of different crew members led them to identify and focus on different risks. They also judged the severity of those risks differently. For example, pilots imagined engine failures and botched flyaways, blade strikes, and loss of tail rotor control. Rear-crew predicted winch failures, falls and slips, and snagged cables. The lesson was that risk perception is a question of perspective, and therefore risk management requires multiple inputs from multiple perspectives.

Successfully mitigating risk when hoisting is a team collaboration from start to finish. It stands to reason that when evaluating a wide range of threats, one person’s perspective is inferior to multiple inputs from many different points of view. A model describing competent performance, such as this one, is just a framework, but it can assist in systematically identifying and working through potential hazards that a hoisting mission could present, as well as ways of considering barriers to effective team performance. Furthermore, most of this process can happen long before we reach the aircraft, because – as with any other high-risk activity – it is the culture, training and procedures that underpin crew behaviors where risk is most effectively managed, mitigated and controlled.

Fig 3: 10 Years of Hoisting 2013 - 2023

AirMed&Rescue spoke to Marko Beutler, Head of Software Design, from Reiser Simulation and Training about the company’s latest development, hoistAR, which offers a new take on hoist training opportunities

Our focus has been to develop a training solution for hoist operators and hoist crews, one that allows them to train in a safe and extremely realistic environment. The primary component of the hoistAR is the replica of the helicopter section, the winch operator's workplace – complete with a skid and door area. A real rope moves through the winch controller’s hand, which is then controlled by their other hand. The rope is guided by its own X-Z portal, and it exerts forces on the rope that affect the swaying behavior of the load – just like in real life. Training is supplemented by high-end augmented reality goggles, which bring the scenario to life. The real rope leads into a virtual rope, on the end of which the load hangs. The entire construction is based on a motion that simulates realistic feedback of the helicopter’s movements.

It is important that the hoist operator masters their hand movements, but even more important is the collaborative approach from the interaction with the entire crew. Our development is based on a networked solution where each member of the crew can train on different training devices at different locations but all in the same virtual scenario. The scenarios are based on real-life missions as they were developed in close cooperation with one of Germany’s most significant air rescue organizations. An instructor can evaluate the training quality and mission success at any time, abort if necessary, and discuss and correct any mistakes based on review with the permanent recordings.

Supporting hoist training for operators from all backgroundsAir Rescue UK (ARUK) has a mission to support helicopter operators in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and further afield who provide helicopter hoist operations for search and rescue (SAR), helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), policing, and commercial air transport. We achieve that through the delivery of flight and hoist operations in SAR, and through the design and delivery of training. Our route to successfully supporting operators was by working with them to provide the solutions that they require, meeting their regulatory, contractual, cultural and, ultimately, financial needs. Our multi-national team has built a strong partnership with each of our customers via teamwork, adaptability and a sound knowledge of the regulatory environment.

Since very early in the life of ARUK, we have provided hoist operations training for SAR and HEMS, which has involved air and ground training plus general helicopter operations theory, human factors, crew resource management, and medical training. In April, we took delivery of a Portable Hoist Mission Training System (HMTS) from Bluedrop Training & Simulation and moved our training business under the name of Air Rescue Training & Simulation (ARTS). Initial, continuation and specific emergency simulation training for hoist operators is the future – safe and cost-effective with ARTS.

Focusing on the crew and teamworkA hoist operation doesn’t start when the aircraft arrives on a scene, nor does it finish once the casualty is onboard. Hoist operations involve a fully integrated crew from the moment that they are on duty to the minute the duty period finishes. That will include pilots and technical crew (TC) and could include TC winchpersons / rescue swimmers for SAR; or doctors, paramedics and mountain rescuers for HEMS. All the crew form a team that equally contributes to the mission and the safety of the aircraft.

ARTS focuses on the knowledge, skills and attributes of hoist operations. These skills can only be applied as part of a team, and teamwork is reliant on the shared application of human factors. We provide initial training for ab initio hoist operators, through to full crew mission training and on-going standardization. We also provide specific training for emergency events that cannot be practiced in flight – such as hoist emergencies, cable snagging and cable cuts. Training must replicate the operations, environments, crew structures, operations manuals, check lists and regulations that are used day to day; to achieve this, our instructors embed themselves to become part of the greater team.

Superior simulator training for special operationsUntil recently, hoist operations training has revolved around ground briefings followed by airborne sorties. Sorties are reliant on aircraft serviceability and weather, and are costly in terms of flight time and maintenance. Hoist towers have had limited benefit because they are static; whereas, some theatres have been built to replicate helicopter movement while hoisting, but have high upfront build costs. Simulation, however, has been proven over many years in pilot training, with benefits of safety, standardization, lowered cost of use and being environmentally friendly; and the key to good simulation is its fidelity – visuals, sound and communication, haptics, or geolocation. Most, if not all, non-mechanical emergencies in hoisting are caused by unwanted cable movement. They not only move up and down; but may spin, swing or rotate conically; and tag lines, wind and aircraft speed will cause drag on a cable. Bluedrop’s HMTS is the first and only hoist simulator that can recreate the haptic feel of unwanted cable movement in X,Y and Z axes with a high fidelity.

Additionally, it has the capability to be linked to a pilot flight simulation training device (FSTD) or flight training device (FTD) so that the hoist operating crew and the pilot can conduct the training mission together. The HMTS allows hoist operation learning from initial assessments of capability for training through initial helicopter hoist operator training to advanced emergency and distractions training. The HMTS can also be used for mission recreation for analysis or incident investigation, and the development of new practices and standard operating procedures.

Because Bluedrop’s background is in learning and training, they have understood that the human factor is essential to develop learning through simulation, and using the data collection abilities from the simulator can create student performance data to bring objective performance measurement to training, rather than the historic subjective assessment of each individual instructor. ARUK and ARTS are proud to be working as a team with Bluedrop Simulation & Training to improve the hoist operations teamwork of operators.

Dedicated to helicopter hoist and winch successBreeze-Eastern equipment is designed, built and fielded to the industry’s most demanding environments. The machines our industry relies upon have evolved through the hard lessons learned through past usage. In particular, the hoist mission is exposed to complex physics. This has led to decades of refinement of design and controls in order to add as many failsafes as possible, all towards the goal of allowing the mission team the confidence and security for mission success and mission safety.

Pioneering work and innovationBreeze-Eastern has developed the industry’s only durable overload protection system, and developed the only wire rope cable designed specifically for today’s rescue hoist environments. These technologies support the hoist mission’s core vulnerabilities. Years of live pedigree with both technologies have ensured that Breeze hoist and winch operators can fully trust these machines.

Safety and trainingBreeze-Eastern offers comprehensive, hands-on maintenance training whenever, wherever. A class can be held at Breeze-Eastern or we will come to you. Safety is our top priority and that starts with the product itself. In our classes, we outline the BreezeEastern maintenance manuals as well as demonstrate hands-on training and best practices, so users are comfortable handling and maintaining our products. For tactical and hoist operations, Breeze-Eastern recommends SR3 Rescue Concepts, Priority 1 Air Rescue and Air Rescue Systems, who provide highly qualified instructors alongside cutting-edge training.

Alex Pollitt, Pilot and CRM Trainer. A helicopter pilot with Bristow Group, currently flying for the Dutch Caribbean Coastguard operation, he has a particular interest in non-technical competencies, Crew Resource Management and Human Factors in Aviation. Alex is a qualified EASA CRM Trainer and UK Military Aviation Authority accredited Human Factors Facilitator with land-based and maritime flying experience, including military and civil search and rescue operations. He holds an MA in International Liaison and Communication and is currently studying for an MSc in Human Factors in Aviation with the University of Coventry.

The anatomy of a winch cableA winch cable model of hoisting competencyManaging hoisting hazards AirMed&Rescue spoke to Marko Beutler, Head of Software Design, from Reiser Simulation and Training about the company’s latest development, hoistAR, which offers a new take on hoist training opportunitiesSupporting hoist training for operators from all backgroundsFocusing on the crew and teamworkSuperior simulator training for special operationsDedicated to helicopter hoist and winch successPioneering work and innovationSafety and training