Landing a helicopter: what firefighters need to know

With an understanding of these basic rules, any firefighter can assist landing a helicopter — and the chances you'll have to is growing


Whether you are involved in wildland fires, trauma response, disaster relief or assisting in an observational flight, helicopter landings should be part of your tactical toolbox. 

With the increase in wildland fires and the urban interface program allowing structural firefighters greater input into the campaign, fire department personnel can expect to be tasked with providing temporary landing sites. 

In addition, Flight for Life, Air Life and similar programs are often called upon to land in outlying areas for patient pickup. In cases of multiple or severe trauma in urban locations, they have been known to drop onto highways, parking lots or the middle of a busy intersection.

Every agency using helicopters has guidelines and detailed policies regarding their own fix-site landing operations. However, temporary landing zones, or LZs, require a general knowledge of universally accepted procedures combined with pilot specifics as relayed in radio traffic prior to actual touchdown. 

Site selection
Selecting an appropriate landing area is the first order of business. Ideally, it should be on level ground, free from obstacles with a 100-foot diameter.

The optimal departure angle for a helicopter is an 8:1 ratio. This means that a 10-foot obstacle should be 80 feet from the LZ with its 100-foot diameter — a 20 foot obstacle, 160 feet away, and so on.

The site should be free from overhead wires and all dirt, sand and gravel sites should be avoided unless it can be wet down before landing. Watch for debris and anything not secure or able to be tied down. 

As the helicopter enters your airspace it is imperative to establish communications. Ideally, this will be a predetermined radio channel. Radio communications may mean a direct channel or information relayed through dispatch. 

If no compatible radio channels are available, there are established hand signals available from the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or the local airport authority. Have a copy of these in the engine or service vehicle. 

If you have communications with the pilot, be prepared. Weather conditions, patient status and any other relevant information are important prior to touchdown. Pilots are keenly aware of wind speed and direction. 

Barometric pressure and ambient temperature can be critical to landing, especially at high altitudes. Some engine crews carry a weather application on their computer or phone and a windsock or flag for just such an occasion.

Marking and lighting
Marking the site can be anything from fire hose in a circle to chemical light sticks in the evening hours. A firefighter with arms extended in the middle of the LZ circle is acceptable to most pilots as long as there is eye contact with the pilot on approach and the firefighter leaves the LZ in a timely fashion.

Keeping an eye on this is a necessity as firefighter fixation on a hovering helicopter can be real.

Landing zone lighting is usually solved by vehicles or handheld spotlights positioned in an "X" pattern centered on the LZ. Pilots vary in their preference for keeping lights on during final decent, and will often use their own landing lights regardless. 

A simple radio request for "LZ landing lights off" by the pilot will clear this up quickly; be prepared to turn off all illumination.

During final descent, the downward motion of the helicopter is signaled by a change of pitch in the rotation of the blades. They are not slowing down, simply changing blade angle as they descend. 

Eye contact
This is a critical time as it is now difficult for the pilot to abort the landing sequence. It is imperative to have the LZ completely clear and all firefighters safe, whether behind a fire engine or at an acceptable distance from the LZ.

If you are assigned to the center of the LZ, make sure your PPE is secure — helmet strapped, pockets closed, and gloves and eyewear on. You may use flashlights held in one or both hands, but do not point the light directly at the approaching helicopter. Optimal stance is arms out and away in a cross, lights extended pointing directly vertical. 

Make eye contact as soon as possible with the pilot and take your action cues from him. Once in line with the LZ and taking one last look at the pilot, leave the LZ by walking backwards always facing the helicopter and staying in visual contact with the pilot until you are completely clear of the LZ. Take cover behind your vehicle or where appropriate. 

Once on the ground, if there is no predetermined policy, do not approach the helicopter right away. Let the flight crew come to you or signal you in.

Safe approach
Ideally, movement around a helicopter is safest when the rotors are stopped, but turning off the engine may not be expedient for the work to be done. Again, the flight crew will take the lead.

Always approach the helicopter from the front. This allows the pilot to see you and signal if there is an issue. Always avoid the rear rotors and never approach from uphill. 

When approaching from the front, it is perfectly acceptable to hunch over while looking ahead, regardless of location or height. The rule is to always be aware of the blades and their rotation. 

Helicopter landings, or chopper assists, are exciting, especially for first time firefighters. But this is not the time for selfies or Facebook. During landings, an innocently activated flash can distract a pilot unfamiliar with his surroundings just enough to have a needless reaction and possibly complicate an already difficult situation. 

It is better to wait for a pause in the action and get the pilot's permission for pictures. You will find that pilots are as justifiably proud for their emergency vehicle as you are of yours and their enthusiasm for picture taking may surprise you. 

Taking off from a temporary LZ is a straightforward process of aiding the flight crew with patients, equipment and whatever special requests they may have. Scene control and staying clear of the LZ, while maintaining the pilot's line of sight, is the preferred operational directive.

As the bird drifts up and away into silence, you can take satisfaction in having successfully facilitated your temporary landing zone. 

About the author

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colo.) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. Today, Jim serves as an adjunct instructor with his hometown combination fire department. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Jim advises business and industry on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. As a writer, Jim has won four IAFF media awards since retiring from active duty. Jim has an associate's degree in fire science and a bachelor's degree in communications. He can be reached at Jim.Spell@FireRescue1.com.

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