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ORNGE gives green light on night flights in remote areas

October 7, 2013

Mississauga News

MISSISSAUGA — ORNGE hopes to slowly resume night flights to remote locations across Ontario, thanks to a little help from the sun.

The medical transport agency plans to buy 90 sets of solar-powered lights to illuminate helipads at rural sites in the province, shining the way for ORNGE helicopters flying to nighttime emergencies.

“We believe that, with the lighting and with the training, we’ll get to the point where we can resume operations into these helipads in a safe way, ” Dr. Andrew McCallum, Mississauga-based ORNGE’s president and CEO, said in an interview.

Flights to these locations were suspended earlier this year because they involve so-called “black hole” approaches, when the night sky and lack of lights on the ground leave pilots with few visual clues. Pilots can easily become disoriented, leading to a crash.

In the past, pilots approaching these helipads had to use the helicopter’s lights to illuminate reflective cones on the ground. One ORNGE pilot likened it to flying with a “bag over your head.”

The agency has suffered two night crashes, including a fatal accident on May 31 involving a Sikorsky helicopter that killed two pilots and two paramedics. That accident remains under investigation. However, an earlier helicopter crash at a remote helipad in 2008 was ruled “controlled flight into terrain, ” when pilots inadvertently fly into the ground, usually in conditions of darkness or poor visibility.

McCallum said that tests of the solar-powered lights at three sites show they are a big improvement, with the lights visible for as much as eight kilometres.

“They make a huge difference, from what the pilots tell us, ” McCallum said, adding that they work so well, they almost take away the black hole effect.

“We’re confident this will be a major risk reducer, but it’s not enough by itself, ” McCallum said, adding that ORNGE is also stepping up its training. ORNGE is looking at other options as well to boost the safety of night flights by its helicopter fleet.

One of them is installing new, more powerful searchlights to light up landing sites. Another is enhanced vision systems that use infrared technology to provide pilots with a view of the terrain around them.

ORNGE is also looking at night-vision goggles. ORNGE has asked several of its pilots who used night-vision goggles during previous work in the military to study the technology further. However, McCallum said the agency is proceeding “cautiously” on this front.

“To retrofit them into the helicopters would be certainly a complex undertaking. I expect we’ll make a decision in the next month or two.”

ORNGE is also resuming helicopter flights under instrument flight rules (IFR), typically reserved for flights in poor weather. Such flights had been suspended until helicopter pilots got additional training in how to avoid controlled flight into terrain. McCallum said about 60 per cent of the pilots so far have the required training and are now cleared for IFR flights. McCallum stressed that the final decision whether to launch a flight always rests with ORNGE pilots. He said details of a patient’s condition are kept from the crew to ensure it doesn’t influence a decision.

“We deliberately keep that from them just so that they don’t ever make a decision that’s based on the … patient, ” McCallum said. “We really stress with our pilots that I don’t ever want them to feel that they have to go, ” he said. Meanwhile, ORNGE hopes to return a helicopter to the Moosonee base on Oct. 15. The base has been without a permanent helicopter since the May 31 crash.

Mississauga News

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