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What HEC Means To Mountain Rescue

Working in mountainous terrain has a long history – and coupled with that is the inevitable need for medical assistance, easy access, and safety precautions while navigating mountain environments. For many years, mountain rescue was limited exclusively to labor-intensive, time-consuming and often dangerous manned expeditions. Navigating hazards ranging from high altitude and steep crevasses to extreme weather conditions and avalanches, these ground operations requiring rescuers to climb in to access an injured individual posed (and continue to pose) major risks. At certain times, such as periods of intense wind or snow, or during night hours, ground operations continue to be necessary for mountain rescue operations. However, with the introduction of HEC (Human External Cargo) for helicopter mountain rescue into Canada 40+ years ago, the opportunities for more advanced mountain rescue techniques have become increasingly relevant.

HEC can be explained in two components – first is the load being carried; in this case, human loads (this is in contrast to, for example, the load associated with hanging equipment being transported). The second defining element of HEC is a fixed line operation in which the length of line being used is constant, as opposed to a hoist operation in which the line is variable. Helicopters can leverage HEC technology to access remote, high-angle areas that may otherwise be unreachable.

Marc Ledwidge has over 30 years of experience in professional mountain rescue and safety, and is an expert in the field of helicopter rescue and HEC. When considering the importance and impact of HEC on mountain rescue, Marc identified three main advantages of the fixed line helicopter rescue system over, for example, a hoist system. The first is versatility. Because the fixed line is not permanently attached to the helicopter, a single helicopter can more easily multitask. On one day a helicopter could be out serving commercial purposes, the next conducting a sightseeing tour, and then still go out and assist in a mountain rescue. A second major advantage, and connected to this versatility, is the economic cost-savings associated with HEC. And finally, HEC represents a lighter option for mountain rescue. The system does not add payload, it does not require an additional operator, and therefore is an ultimately easier, lighter, and more fuel-efficient way to conduct mountain rescue.

When Marc explains the history of this field, he emphasizes how HEC has revolutionized mountain rescue. When the technology first came to Canada (via Parks Canada) from Europe over 40 years ago, it drastically reduced the time required for rescues and allowed access to technical sites that had previously been inaccessible. Pilots trained in precision, such as in long line logging work, are important for this type of skilled rescue. Typically two rescuers accompany the pilot, versus an entire ground team that would be otherwise needed.

Rigging up for helicopter rescue

In Canada, the field has strict guidelines for certification and operation, and is regulated by Transport Canada. Canada has become the number one player in the civilian helicopter rescue world – in Banff, Alberta (home of the Rocky Mountains), helicopters are out on a daily basis during the summer months conducting rescue missions. It is obvious that such helicopter rescue techniques, and the regulations that come with them, are a critical industry in Canada.

What advances or next steps remain in this field? Advances in the aviation world often take decades to be realized, but modernization in helicopters continues. Hands-free flight and auto-pilot systems are being developed; however, technology is still not advanced enough for such systems to be used in close proximity to cliffs or other high angles. Night-vision goggles and associated technology continues to improve each year, which opens up more opportunity for advanced mountain rescue during night hours. And drone technology for searching is becoming more prevalent, but drones are still subject to the same weather and elevation concerns that affect helicopters.

Without HEC, mountain rescue would not be nearly what it is today – though this work conducted in tight spaces, at lofty heights, and at awkward angles isn’t often visible to us all, it’s critical to mountain workers, mountaineers, and the skilled people that rescue them.

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