The Swedish Maritime Administration (SMA) has responsibility for one of the largest Scandinavian Search and Rescue regions, stretching from the Southern Baltic Sea right up to the Northern Gulf of Bothnia. Overland, Sweden’s SAR responsibilities also extend well into the Arctic Circle under its commitment to the Arctic Search and Rescue agreement. The SMA replaced their fleet of S-76C+ aircraft with Leonardo (then Agusta Westland)’s AW139 medium helicopter, of which seven were delivered between 2013 and 2014. In late May, Lloyd Horgan got a first-hand look at how the new aircraft is performing.

Words: Jon Duke
Photography: Lloyd Horgan

Sweden’s SAR History

The somewhat complex history of airborne Search and Rescue in Sweden begins in 1961 with the Norrlandsflyg company. Initially operating fixed-wing aircraft in the Northern wilderness, they quickly established helicopter operations with a mix of types ranging from Bell 47s to Sikorsky S-55Ts operating in the utility role. After gaining their first EMS contract in 1970, the company went from strength to strength, with more contracts following and the acquisition of an SA-360C Dauphin in ’81 and then their first S-76 in ’93. The Sikorsky type would become the staple over the following years as the company moved away from the utility market to concentrate on EMS and SAR roles, receiving its first civilian SAR contract in 2002. By 2008 Norrlandsflyg had won two more SAR contracts and the owners sold the majority share of the company to Scandinavian Helicopter Invest (SHI). Now operating S-76C/C+, a deal was signed in the same year to procure eight brand new S-76D helicopters, which at that time were yet to fly. This deal was later cancelled and in 2011 the Swedish government approved the purchase of Norrlandsflyg by the Swedish Maritime Agency under the banner of ‘SMA Helicopter Rescue’, a move that would ensure the financial viability of continued domestic SAR and lead to the purchase of seven AW139s. Now fully incorporated into the SMA, these aircraft provide all of Sweden’s civilian SAR coverage from five bases along the coastline.

Basing

Lloyd would be visiting Ronneby in South Eastern Sweden, the second base to receive the AW139 in August 2014 after operations had begun from the northernmost base at Umeå four months prior. The base at Norrtälje on the Baltic coast would follow, then Gothenburg in the West with Visby on the island of Gotland the last to convert to the new aircraft. This dispersal of assets puts everywhere in Sweden’s SAR region except the very northern wilderness within unrefuelled range of the AW139, and gives a degree of overlap in the busier shipping lanes of the southern Baltic Sea.

Vessels large and small are all in abundance in these waters, so there is perhaps little surprise that SMA opted for an aircraft like the AW139 for their mission. Without the prospect of a search of large expanses of open ocean, there’s little need for the long legs of larger helicopters. However, with the potential requirement to orchestrate a complex rescue from a large ship such as a cargo vessel or cruise liner, there is a clear need for a large cabin and the sort of maritime SAR capabilities that such a mission might demand.

The Aircraft

According to the manufacturer, the AW139 delivers the largest cabin in its class, which is a huge improvement over the previous S-76C+ that was based at Ronneby. That aircraft had previously been used for offshore utility, and so had to be retrofitted for the SAR role. The AW139 came factory-equipped with two winches, a SAR mission interior and cabin extension with enough space for a rescue swimmer, winch operator, doctor/flight nurse and of course the casualty. The 139 cabin also allows for much easier egress in the case of an emergency landing or ditching, with all doors and windows being jettisonable.

Other improvements include the introduction of an airframe anti-icing system, strangely absent on the S-76 despite operating in such Northern latitudes, and integrated Euronav 5 mission and situational awareness system, which is an upgrade from the tablet-based carry-on system used in previous types and includes the integration of AIS – the transponder-based Automatic Identification System used to locate and identify ships.

As might be expected of a modern design, the aircraft comes equipped for IFR transits in controlled airspace with the full suite of aviation communication and navigation equipment based on the Honeywell Primus Epic integrated avionics suite, with a P701 weather radar. Additionally, Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System and Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems are fitted, alongside several SAR/EMS-specific items such as TETRA radio, satellite communication and Marine VHF radio.

A 4-axis fully digital automatic flight control system keeps the aircraft stable throughout the flight envelope – a necessity when undertaking precision manoeuvring in turbulent conditions under a semi-rigid rotor head – and crews are fully equipped to conduct night-time rescues, with the aircraft being fully compatible with Night Vision Devices. A cruise speed of 145kts and a maximum speed of 167kts gives it a slight edge over its predecessor but its power margin is where it really stands above the S-76. Gustaf Lannek, Ronneby base commander and pilot, says the 139’s margin in the hover could have life-saving implications.

“In the case of an engine failure in light wind, the AW139 is able to remain hovering for five minutes at standard SAR weight. This is a big advantage as in the same situation the S76 would need immediate action from the pilots, who in many cases would have to cut the hoist cable.”

Given Sweden’s wildly variable climate (in the South it’s a lot milder than most people realise!) the aircraft needs to be able to cope with anything the weather can throw at it. Thunderstorms are not uncommon and in the far North temperatures are below zero for much of the year so it is reassuring to hear that the AW139 is certified for flight into known icing conditions. Its Full Icing Protection System (FIPS) uses electric heating to shed ice from the main and tail rotors, as well as heating the cockpit windshield. Further south where fog is prevalent along the coastlines and out to sea, the extended flight director’s SAR-specific modes allow blind transitions down to the hover and back into forward flight, as well as providing pre-programmed search patterns. For additional capacity in the hover, a winchman’s hover trim allows the rear crew to manoeuvre the aircraft directly from the winching station – reducing the requirement for him to verbally ‘con’ the aircraft via the pilot. This system is particularly useful when the pilot has limited visual references, such as when winching to yachts at night.

With Ronneby responding to around 100 rescues every year, with year-round trade brought by illnesses on the islands or passing cruise ships. Pilot Magnus Lingwald explains that Summer tends to be their busiest season. The fine weather sees more people exploring Sweden’s beautiful countryside or taking to the water in small boats and with more people enjoying themselves outdoors comes an increase in the number of people getting lost or swept out to sea. Winter tends to see some of the islands completely iced-in, meaning that the helicopter is the only means of hospital transport for even relatively minor injuries. Such missions are not always routine, as in one particular example of the transfer of a pregnant lady between hospitals.

“We were getting forced lower and lower by the weather,” explains Magnus. “Then one of the [medical] pumps broke and we had to turn back and land at another hospital for a spare. We carried on from there but things were getting pretty tense in the back.” It may not sound like much in the cold light of day and with a heavy helping of typically Nordic sangfroid, but the combination of weather, climate and the pressure of truly life and death jeopardy is a hazard well recognised by the SAR and HEMS community. Key to mitigating the risks to all those involved, including the casualty, is meticulous and constant training.

Training

The SMA crews usually fly a training sortie every day and living at the base for seven days at a time gives them sufficient time to develop strong bonds within their teams and build continuity into the training programme. They have varying backgrounds, with a mix of military and civilian experience. The pilots’ previous jobs range from military SAR through HEMS or offshore flying, to bush flying or charter operations. While the winch operators tend to be from civilian stock, the rescue swimmers have typically cut their teeth in the military, although this is changing. The company now has its own programme for training rescue swimmers using its own facilities. All of the rear-seat crews have advanced first aid training as they will often be the first on the scene of an incident. Additionally, a team of 10 doctors and 16 flight nurses from local hospitals are fully trained and able to join the SMA aircrew, should specialist medical intervention be required. This additional duty involves close cooperation between the medical staff and the aircrews, with a doctor or flight nurse joining a training sortie once every week.

Crewing and routine

A typical SAR crew consists of two pilots, a rescue swimmer and a winch operator. Scrambles usually come in through the TETRA emergency services radio. While the rear crew ready any additional equipment and range the aircraft on dispersal, the front-seaters change into immersion suits and conduct any planning required. If the weather is inclement or the job is particularly complex, this time is extended as the crew ensure that enough planning takes place for them to safely get airborne. As ever with life-critical flying, you’re no use to anybody if you never make it to the scene.

The rear seat crew get changed while the aircraft is started, and once all are aboard the final pre-flight checks are carried out. The aim is to be fully kitted up, crewed in and ready to fly within 15 minutes from a cold start.

Normally the left hand seat pilot will fly, with the right hand seat occupied by the aircraft captain, who takes care of the radios and radar, fuel calculations and other planning considerations.

Conclusion

With such changeable weather and over 3000km of coastline to cover, SMA crews certainly have their work cut out, and their new aircraft certainly seems up to the task. The combination of aircrew with their skill and professionalism, flying a helicopter this capable should give comfort to those taking on the notoriously unpredictable Baltic Sea. Because even in these crowded waters, in an age of GPS and global communication, the need to have men and women prepared to risk their life to save others is still starkly evident, illustrated perfectly by Gustaf, who arrived at a sinking sailing boat with ten souls still on board.

After lifting eight of the ship’s crew to the relative safety of his aircraft’s cabin, the remaining two sailors elected to stay on board to try to save their stricken vessel. The helicopter crew were then able to lower pumps to the boat’s captain and his shipmate, before departing the scene to drop off their casualties and refuel. As they arrived back at the scene they received another call, from the same location. A second boat had joined the rescue and, while attempting to tow the first craft inshore, three people had become trapped. Gustaf and his crew were able to save two of those on board but tragically the third was beyond help.

Again, he is sanguine about the outcome, preferring to focus on the many benefits of his job and saying, “It´s hard to think of another job that involves high tech equipment, a professional team, extreme weather conditions, all kind of terrain and such a very satisfactory purpose. There is of course a downside. You do not always succeed in saving others. Fortunately, this does not happen frequently and in total, this must be one of the most rewarding jobs there is.”

It is a sobering thought that taking to the ocean, even on one of Europe’s busiest waterways, can carry such risk. But it is made much less by the dedication of men and women like Gustaf and Magnus, who are ready at a moment’s notice to pour their life’s worth of skill and experience into such a technically challenging and dangerous environment “so that others may live”.