Even before the whomp-whomp sound of rotor blades reaches here, folks seem to know there’s a helicopter coming. Traffic and news helicopters seldom bother with rural areas like this, and we don’t exactly attract Hollywood types or business moguls with the resources to pilot themselves. So a helicopter landing isn’t an everyday occurrence. Who wouldn’t want to watch?

When a medical helicopter lands at my local volunteer fire station, we get spectators. Cars and trucks pull over. People arrive on bikes and motorcycles, on lawnmowers and on foot. One neighbor comes in his motorized wheelchair. Fire department personnel generally have enough time to safely position onlookers before the bird arrives. But sometimes, things get complicated or we’re shorthanded on the ground or have other concerns we can’t share. So here are some things you should know about helicopters.

The LZ. In rural areas, when a patient needs air transport, it’s often volunteer fire department personnel who secure a temporary landing zone (LZ). It could be in a field, on the road, at a parking lot or boat landing. And it may not even be connected to an incident or medical emergency in the immediate area. For example, my local fire station is a convenient place for an air ambulance coming from the west to meet up with a ground ambulance heading east-to-west toward the nearest hospital. Transferring a patient en route means the air ambulance can bypass that hospital and deliver a patient directly to the Level II trauma center that serves our region. When this fire department is called out to set up an LZ, here’s what happens: 

  • Based on pre-planning and current conditions (i.e. soft ground, parked cars, proximity to route of travel), a decision is made on where to set up the LZ. Ideally, we want a flat area 100′ x 100′ that’s free of hazards like overhead wires, fences, trees and loose objects. 
  • We use fire trucks to help secure the area and mark the location of potential hazards (like overhead wires) near the perimeter.
  • We mark the corners of the LZ with orange traffic cones tipped on their sides, with logging chains inside each to weigh them down. For night landings and in low light conditions, we put flashlights inside the cones.
  • Unless there’s already a flag at that location, we hoist a wind sock to help the pilot assess wind speed and direction. 

Communications. Once the LZ is established, the ground team radios GPS coordinates for the LZ location to dispatch for relay to incoming units. Our dispatch center may have to contact another county to connect with the incoming ambulance by radio. Until the helicopter is closer, we can’t communicate with it directly, either. Eventually they call us on a Mutual Aid Radio Channel (MARC). The communications officer on the ground delivers a size-up about the surrounding area (things like road intersections, locations of towers, bodies of water) and the LZ (approximate size, how it’s marked, flag or windsock location, perimeter concerns). Generally they advise us that they will make a scouting pass first, then from which direction they will land.

Airborne projectiles. Assume that rotor wash from a helicopter is roughly equivalent to hurricane-force winds. Years ago I sandblasted a camera lens trying to get a picture during a landing. Dirt, sand and snow are bad enough – you really don’t want to experience anything else. On one LZ, we were on the ground packing an amputated limb in ice when the helicopter landed. We hunched over to protect the package from blowing grit, so our backs took the brunt of impact from something we missed in our sweep – plastic flowers with wire stems. The heavy commercial welcome mat we also missed blew toward the building and not the rotors, thank goodness. That’s why spectators are asked to stay at least 100 feet away. 

On the ground. Anything that can blow into the rotors poses a threat to everyone both on the ground and in the helicopter. So hold onto your hat – literally – and anything else that may be loose. Check the bed of any truck parked nearby and keep trunks, hoods, hatches, doors and windows closed to keep loose items from blowing out. Even a sheet of paper plastered against the windshield of a helicopter can block the pilot’s view. Turn off the flash on any camera you might use, take flashlights away from kids, and beware of anything that can interfere with the pilot’s vision and view of the LZ or the area around it.

In the air. It’s hard to imagine anyone intentionally risking the safety of others by flying an unmanned aircraft in or around an LZ or near the flight path of a helicopter. But drones have become common enough that this should come as no surprise: They don’t always respond as expected, even for experienced operators. So drones have no place anywhere near a helicopter. And small rural fire departments may not have enough people to warn bystanders that a helicopter is en route. One time my husband and our chief were the only people available to respond to a motor vehicle accident involving two vehicles and multiple patients. While they did extrication and traffic control, they had a passerby who happened to be a fire service instructor set up and manage an LZ on the highway. A scenario like that is hard enough without looking up and seeing a drone.

Stay put. Once it’s on the ground, we do not run to the helicopter like on M*A*S*H. In fact, we never approach the aircraft unless directed to do so by the pilot or flight crew. Instead, what generally happens is the crew disembarks and goes to the ambulance where the patient is. It may be a while before they transfer the patient to the helicopter. When they do, refrain from taking pictures that show the patient. Their family doesn’t need to see that on social media.

Beware the tail. Do not, at any time, move toward the helicopter from behind. That’s a blind spot for the pilot. A firefighter is often stationed on the ground well behind the aircraft to keep anyone from approaching and possibly walking into the tail rotor. Even if it’s your cousin, don’t walk over to visit with that firefighter.

Search and rescue. We’ve been assisted on search calls several times over the years by helicopters from the Coast Guard, National Guard, and air ambulance services. From a vantage point in the air, one of those was able to spot the body snagged underwater in strong current near where dog teams had flagged multiple times, and that was greatly appreciated. But communications between multi-agency teams in the air and on the ground are unreliable, at best. In that same incident, the helicopter hovered over the river to drop a line, not knowing we could set up a system for the body recovery without their aid. The rotor wash brought tree limbs down along the banks where ground personnel were working. One of our people was up in a tree placing an anchor when the chopper moved in. Others were in kayaks on the water. Our chief and I were on a boulder near the shoreline. I’m pretty sure I left fingernail marks in the rock trying to hold on against that rotor wash and the spray of water. 

It’s that scene I remembered a couple of years ago when a rafter clinging to a rock near the same place screamed at our team, “Call a helicopter!” Be careful what you wish for. For the record, she and her injured companion were extracted from their predicament by a team on the water, and transported to hospital via ground ambulance.

I did get a helicopter ride myself once, after being hit by a drunk driver on a rural highway in Iowa. What I remember most about it was the cold. And the noise. By the way, if you put hearing protection on your kids at parades and monster truck rallies, do the same at a helicopter landing.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department. 

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