n 2015, the Government Flying Service (GFS) of Hong Kong decided to migrate to a fleet of seven H175 helicopters to service a range of public service demands. With a tally of 5,300 flight hours in nearly two years, the H175 fleet has proven to be the multi-mission answer for GFS.
Equipped with a team of 41 helicopter pilots and 46 aircrewman officers, having a fleet of seven H175 helicopters has enabled GFS to provide multiple services on a 24-hour basis.
“As a helicopter operator, we are quite unique,” says Captain Graham Dann, who has been with GFS for nearly 10 years. “We cover the full spectrum, can be challenging, but keeps everything fresh. We have a variety of teams available on standby for anything and everything, with search and rescue missions being our bread and butter, whether it’s day or night, in a range of conditions, including typhoon season, maritime environments, mountainous terrain, and hot and humid weather.”
While search and rescue is GFS’s primary focus, routine business also involves aerial surveys, firefighting, maritime tasks, law enforcement support, and offshore medical evacuations. As the first operator of the public services variant of the H175, the team also maintains a comprehensive training programme as it transitions to the new fleet. Despite the challenges of integrating the new fleet while maintaining their usual scope of commitments, GFS was able to implement a training programme with the services provided by Airbus Helicopters Training Services (AHTS) on site. “We are very grateful to AHTS’ pilot and crewman instructors for delivering extensive training in Hong Kong. We were not familiar with the H175 at the time, so it was really helpful to have the AHTS team here to answer questions,” says GFS Air Crewman Officer, Benny Chan, who alongside Captain Dann is currently involved with the H175 training programme.
Hiking is a favourite pastime in Hong Kong’s mountainous terrain, which means GFS is often called to help hikers who have wandered off the beaten track, fallen from heights or down a slope during heavy rain. “Teamwork is fundamental to these types of search and rescue operations,” explains Captain Graham Dann. “The crew, which is liaising with ground parties to find survivors, often increases to include a hoist operator, a winchman, a medic and possibly members of a mountain rescue team.”
The scope of call-outs is not exclusive to land operations. GFS also receives a number of maritime requests that include the search for suspected drownings, surveying the number of dolphins in the area, and the rescue of canoeists and swimmers. They are also able to go further offshore and provide medevac assistance for commercial or cargo vessels. “With the ability to travel up to 200 nautical miles with around 45 minutes on scene in operation (and further if we refuel on an oil rig), we are able to extend our rescue efforts beyond the square boundaries of Hong Kong and travel further out during maritime missions,” says Captain Dann.
GFS’s fleet of H175s are integrated with a number of innovative capabilities, including the Digital MAP (DMAP), a dedicated search radar, and a range of sensors to provide enhanced flight precision and situational awareness during SAR missions. If engaged in an operation that requires the assessment of a specific location or operation, GFS is also able to employ the video download link - a feature that relays footage to the ops team for analysis.
“When we perform a hover, we are able to use the electro optic system (EOS) camera in visual mode to look at the winching area to spot hazards and look for survivors. We also use the Loud Hailer system to amplify messages to survivors,” says GFS Air Crewman Officer Benny Chan, who alongside Captain Dann, is also heavily involved with H175 training program. “Lost hikers tend to be hidden underneath high trees or bushes, so we also call them to get specific information. And if we’re on the phone with them, as we get closer, we can hear the aircraft,” continues Officer Chan. If the pilot does not have a visual reference during the rescue operation, they are able to hand over the hover control to the aircrewman using the cabin hover control system (CHCS).
Once the survivor has been located, the stability of the platform is crucial for the hoisting operation. “Helionix and its range of upper modes to safely let down in all conditions is beneficial. Once we are in hover, it’s all about choosing the best upper mode best suited for the environment,” says Captain Dann. “That being said,” continues Captain Dann, it’s also important for the pilot to be able to fly manually and to find the right balance between manual and upper modes depending on the conditions.”
During night missions, the minimal equipment or switches that require access in the upper compartment mean the crew can move around the cockpit with greater ease, even while wearing their night vision goggles (NVG). “The spectrum of lighting on the H175 makes night missions more comfortable; the crew can adjust the cockpit lighting according to their needs and/or when wearing NVG, and can utilize the hover floodlight, belly steerable light and tracker beam when necessary,” says Captain Dann.
The flexibility provided by the HEMS cabin configuration is imperative to GFS, which has a designated H175 for its ER team. “The cargo racking and the foldable seats provide additional space in the cabin, and with the Emergency Medical System (EMS) fitted, medical personnel are able to use the aircraft as a well-equipped emergency room,” says Officer Chan.
With the recent pandemic, GFS has been able to continue HEMS operations with the implementation of strict measures and modifications to accommodate COVID-19 patient transport. “We now have a curtain separating the captain from the cockpit, and maintain ventilation in the aircraft to avoid static airflow. We are quite confident with our procedures, because we had a similar experience with SARS in 2003,” continues Officer Chan.
GFS’s fleet of H175s continues to provide added comfort and relief, with innovations designed for arduous missions. “If you imagine a long-range mission, at night, in bad weather, and over sea, it’s comforting to know you can come back with this aircraft. It is a less stressful environment. It’s really capable, very comfortable, has a lovely spacious cockpit, great air conditioning, and the upper modes and Helionix are fantastic. It’s next generation stuff, no doubt about it,” notes Captain Dann.