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We train the mission

Preparing helicopter crews for the demanding and stressful operations of specialized missions has long posed a challenge for commercial and government operators. The high costs of training, complicated by the limited availability of experienced instructors and aircraft, have put a noticeable strain on the development of ab initio air ambulance, search-and-rescue (SAR) and other special-mission aircrews.

Moreover, the emphasis is often on pilots rather than “rear crews”–the rescue specialists, hoist operators, tactical personnel and paramedics essential for successful operations.

“Many recognize there is a current gap in our profession,” said Brad Matheson, president of Priority 1 Air Rescue (P1AR). “There is a need to change the dynamics of training from traditional live flight only to a more graduated and systematic approach with simulation that is actually more cost-effective. Rear-crew training should have the same focus as the cockpit, and that includes the use of synthetic training as well as live flight.”

Over 20 years, P1AR has established a reputation among law enforcement, SAR and other emergency services as an innovative one-stop shop for aircrew training. The company is known for developing comprehensive programs based on industry best practices, tailored to customer missions and aircraft. Plus, it has an expertise in rear-crew operations that few can match.

“We train the mission. Our specialty is whole crew training, but more rear-crew centric,” explained Matheson. “It is a very specialized field, and it takes a commitment of time and money to get people up to a standard where they are capable of conducting those missions safely.”

The P1AR group operates two Search and Rescue – Tactical Training Academy facilities, one in Mesa, Arizona, and another in Bordeaux, France. They provide basic to advanced procedural and virtual training for a growing list of customers that includes the United States Coast Guard (USCG), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)-Air and Marine Operations (AMO), and branches of the Netherlands and French ministries of defence. In recent months, P1AR has also added a large European coast guard service and an undisclosed customer for combat SAR and pararescue.

The USCG contract is for ab initio to advanced-level, instructor-led hoist operator training for flight mechanics on the Airbus MH-65D/E and Sikorsky MH-60T helicopters. It is illustrative of the scope and savings P1AR can provide.

The five-year program will see up to 500 ab initio flight mechanics attend its academy in Mesa for ground school instruction and training on a hoist procedural tower and in a simulator. P1AR developed the customized courseware, an e-learning platform, hoist tower, synthetic environments (including night-vision-goggle operations) and examination processes.

“Once they leave our academy, they do their operational flight testing and then are in service,” said Matheson. “The synthetic training is increasing capability and saving services like the USCG and CBP-AMO time, money and resources to get their crews mission-ready.”

Over the first year of the USCG program, which was completed in October 2019, P1AR saved the Coast Guard an estimated US$2.6 million in flight time costs normally associated with their training. A European defense customer, meanwhile, estimated savings of more than $3 million with the company’s services. “And just as important, their students were operational four months sooner than previously accomplished with live flight alone,” said Matheson.

P1AR weighed the merits of acquiring and operating its own aircraft but saw the limitations of a single airframe. Matheson said hoist procedural towers and virtual simulators can be reconfigured to match any type of customer’s aircraft, including the positioning of the cabin door, hoist, seats and other equipment.

“Training needs to be completely realistic. We focus on perfecting our methods and technology to improve the student learning process and increase their safety and capability to conduct the mission.”

In a nod to the military adage, train like you fight, P1AR uses the synthetic environment to recreate the customer’s operating environment. However, it can also practice emergency procedures, from single-engine failure, cable entanglement shear, pendulum and spins, to scenarios that require fast decisions for the rear crew under extreme pressure. That attention to detail, wrote one recent USCG graduate, helped save two lives during a SAR incident.

To support customers like the CBP-AMO with the transition to operational aircraft, P1AR also provides blended training, delivering synthetic practice at the company’s Mesa academy and then live flight at the customer’s facility.

While training may be the company’s backbone, many of those capabilities transfer readily to operational SAR/helicopter emergency medical service programs. In 2017, Era Group was recognized by Helicopter Association International for its advanced use of helicopters in air medical transport, responding to emergency calls in the Gulf of Mexico. P1AR is an instrumental partner in that commercial service, providing complete rear-crew capability, from the paramedics and hoist operators to the equipment, air ambulance licensing and medical oversight.

“We are also practitioners,” said Matheson. “The Era program is a world-class, full SAR service. For us, it was meeting the specific operational requirements in one comprehensive package. More and more international operators are seeking that level of turnkey solution and full-service partner.”

Priority 1 Air Rescue has trained over 9,000 students worldwide, a testament to its combination of leading-edge simulation and flight training, comprehensive courseware and two decades of operational experience.

Heli Tech Insight Magazine 2020

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