Safety In and Around Helicopters

People have been injured, some fatally, in helicopter accidents that would not have occurred had they been informed of the proper method of boarding or deplaning. [Figure 1] A properly briefed passenger should never be endangered by a spinning rotor. The simplest method of avoiding accidents of this sort is to stop the rotors before passengers are boarded or allowed to depart. Because this action is not always practicable, and to realize the vast and unique capabilities of the helicopter, it is often necessary to take on passengers or have them exit the helicopter while the engine and rotors are turning. To avoid accidents, it is essential that all persons associated with helicopter operations, including passengers, be made aware of all possible hazards and instructed how those hazards can be avoided.

Helicopter Ground Procedures and Flight Preparations
Figure 1. Safety procedures for approaching or leaving a helicopter

Ramp Attendants and Aircraft Servicing Personnel

These personnel should be instructed as to their specific duties and the proper method of fulfilling them. In addition, the ramp attendant should be taught to:
  1. Keep passengers and unauthorized persons out of the helicopter landing and takeoff area.
  2. Brief passengers on the best way to approach and board a helicopter with its rotors turning.

Persons directly involved with boarding or deplaning passengers, aircraft servicing, rigging, or hooking up external loads, etc., should be instructed as to their duties. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to cover each and every type of operation related to helicopters. A few of the more obvious and common ones are covered below.

Passengers

All persons boarding a helicopter while its rotors are turning should be taught the safest means of doing so. The pilot in command (PIC) should always brief the passengers prior to engine start to ensure complete understanding of all procedures. The exact procedures may vary slightly from one helicopter model to another, but the following should suffice as a generic guide.

When boarding—
  1. Stay away from the rear of the helicopter.
  2. Approach or leave the helicopter in a crouching manner.
  3. Approach from the side but never out of the pilot’s line of vision. Many helicopters have dipping front blades due to landing gear configuration. For that reason, it is uniformly accepted for personnel to approach from the sides of the helicopter. Personnel should always be cautioned about approaching from the rear due to the tail rotor hazard, even for helicopters such as the BO-105 and BK-117.
  4. Carry tools horizontally, below waist level—never upright or over the shoulder.
  5. Hold firmly onto hats and loose articles.
  6. Never reach up or dart after a hat or other object that might be blown off or away.
  7. Protect eyes by shielding them with a hand or by squinting.
  8. If suddenly blinded by dust or a blowing object, stop and crouch lower; better yet, sit down and wait for help.
  9. Never grope or feel your way toward or away from the helicopter.
  10. Protect hearing by wearing earplugs or earmuffs.

Since few helicopters carry cabin attendants, the pilot must conduct the pretakeoff and prelanding briefings, usually before takeoff due to noise and cockpit layout. The type of operation dictates what sort of briefing is necessary. All briefings should include the following:
  1. The use and operation of seatbelts for takeoff, en route, and landing.
  2. For over water flights, the location and use of flotation gear and other survival equipment that might be on board. Also include how and when to abandon the helicopter should ditching become necessary.
  3. For flights over rough or isolated terrain, all occupants should be told where maps and survival gear are located.
  4. Passengers should be informed as to what actions and precautions to take in the event of an emergency, such as the body position for best spinal protection against a high vertical impact landing (erect with back firmly against the seat back); and when and how to exit after landing. Ensure that passengers are aware of the location of the fire extinguisher, survival equipment and, if equipped, how to use and locate the Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB).
  5. Smoking should not be permitted within 50 feet of an aircraft on the ground. Smoking could be permitted upwind from any possible fuel fumes, at the discretion of the pilot, except under the following conditions:
         • During all ground operations.
         • During takeoff or landing.
         • When carrying flammable or hazardous materials.

When passengers are approaching or leaving a helicopter that is sitting on a slope with the rotors turning, they should approach and depart downhill. This affords the greatest distance between the rotor blades and the ground. If this involves walking around the helicopter, they should always go around the front—never the rear.

Pilot at the Flight Controls

Many helicopter operators have been lured into a “quick turnaround” ground operation to avoid delays at airport terminals and to minimize stop/start cycles of the engine. As part of this quick turn-around, the pilot might leave the cockpit with the engine and rotors turning. Such an operation can be extremely hazardous if a gust of wind disturbs the rotor disk, or the collective flight control moves causing lift to be generated by the rotor system. Either occurrence may cause the helicopter to roll or pitch, resulting in a rotor blade striking the tail boom or the ground. Good operating procedures dictate that, generally, pilots remain at the flight controls whenever the engine is running and the rotors are turning.

If operations require the pilot to leave the cockpit to refuel, the throttle should be rolled back to flight idle and all controls firmly frictioned to prevent uncommanded control movements. The pilot should be well trained on setting controls and exiting the cockpit without disturbing the flight or power controls.

After Landing and Securing

When the flight is terminated, park the helicopter where it does not interfere with other aircraft and is not a hazard to people during shutdown. For many helicopters, it is advantageous to land with the wind coming from the right over the tail boom (counterrotating blades). This tends to lift the blades over the tail boom, but lowers the blades in front of the helicopter. This action decreases the likelihood of a main rotor strike to the tail boom due to gusty winds. Rotor downwash can cause damage to other aircraft in close proximity, and spectators may not realize the danger or see the rotors turning. Passengers should remain in the helicopter with their seats belts secured until the rotors have stopped turning. During the shutdown and postflight inspection, follow the manufacturer’s checklist. Any discrepancies should be noted and, if necessary, reported to maintenance personnel.