Helicopter harmony, Pennsylvania style

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Everyone may share the friendly skies, but whether you are escorting a diplomat, airlifting a patient or keeping an eye on the traffic for a television channel, everyone has a different objective when the rotors begin their beat.

With all those competing interests, communication and co-operation is essential. That is why the Western Pennsylvania Helicopter Safety Summit, a gathering held every four months, was created.

STAT Medevac, a helicopter emergency medical service operator based outside Pittsburgh, hosted the latest event on 21 January, near its home base on Allegheny County airport.

It has been an uneventful winter in the region in terms of dangerous incidents, but between top staffers from several HEMS operators, the Pennsylvania State Police, two US Federal Aviation Administration representatives and electronic news-gathering helicopter pilots from three television channels, there was plenty to say, and all of it highlighted the necessity of co-operation in the air.

Pennsylvania State Police official James Cochran illustrated the challenges of collaborating with the US Secret Service, which descended on Pittsburgh for the G20 Summit in September 2009. While state police patrolled in rotorcraft including a Bell 206, Bell 407, and an Agusta Koala, supplementing fixed-wing surveillance at 3,500-4,500ft (1,070-1,370m) in a Cessna 208 Caravan, Secret Service forces hovered in a pair of Sikorsky Black Hawks.

g20-protests 
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Policing G20 protests added to Pennsylvania's crowded skies

As if co-ordinating such diverse crafts and instruments was not difficult enough, the state police and the Secret Service had vastly different objectives. While the Secret Service aircraft made dignitary protection its priority (33 separate arrivals meaning 66 motorcade movements in all), state police forces focused first on the safety of their law enforcement officers and the safety of civilians, with property protection a close third.

Local HEMS operators flying during the two-day event, for their part, had a variety of communications to manage, with or without security for a major international summit in their airspace. Not all everyday helicopters are transporting patients, organs, or medical teams - there are news gathering pilots such as WTAE Channel 4's James Fanter, likely a little bleary from a day that begins before rush hour at 04:00. There is naturally more casual radio communication between news pilots reporting traffic, and it is not uncommon for HEMS on the scene to ask them to cut down on chatter.

Awareness of extraneous conversations is just one example of the points pilots and managers raised with one another as the meeting evolved into a wide-ranging discussion of safety issues, including awareness of springtime birds. Other pilots mentioned regions where new construction pushes risks such as unexpected cranes into the airspace. Also discussed were the communities that surround high-traffic hospital pads, and the way noise-sensitve residents count the number of helicopter passes each day.

Another perennial issue affecting different HEMS operators is landing zone non-conformity.

Pilots around the room voiced the related concerns: operators face competitive issues when different landing zone standards lead one operator to accept a landing that another will not, due to factors such as the grade of a slope or hazardous wires.

Pilots considered not just the hope of consistent landing zone guidelines (a challenge, particularly given a variety of different aircraft, instruments and technology, including the fact that not all operators use night vision goggles), but the importance of a united front from different HEMS operators to member hospitals about which landing zones are acceptable.

Pilots also emphasised the desire for more communication between operators about the landing zones that are consistently dangerous, and the need for operators to exchange their reasons for turning down a given flight, whether it be it landing zone hazards, the weather, or anything else, so that another operator considering the flight can make the best decision on whether to attempt it.