Rescue in all weathers
Every year, bad weather currently prevents around 600 people in Switzerland from receiving emergency assistance by air. Rega wants to change this situation and in future help even more people in distress. It has therefore launched a series of measures that will enable its helicopters to also be able to fly in fog and falling snow.
Overview of projects
Thanks to satellite-based navigation, it is now possible to perform flights according to instrument flight rules (IFR) independently of fixed installations on the ground. The Swiss Air Force and Skyguide air navigation service have been working together with Rega for a number of years to develop a countrywide network of instrument flight routes known as the Low Flight Network (LFN) and to implement the corresponding approach flight procedures. When visibility is poor, the helicopter flies by autopilot along a route stored in the on-board computer, rather like on a motorway – a considerable benefit in terms of safety. These IFR flight routes link airports, airfields and in particular hospitals with each other.
On 23 December 2017, the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) granted Rega a special authorisation to use key intersections of the LFN around the clock. Rega had already been able to use various sections of the network, but only in the daytime on weekdays – a considerable restriction in view of the unpredictable nature of Rega's missions. Further expansion measures are planned to allow the entire LFN to be used at night, as well as to link other hospitals and regions, such as the Engadin, with the network of instrument flight routes. In addition, Rega would like to have unrestricted use of the military approach flight procedures outside normal operating hours.
In order to be able to operate all-weather rescue flights, up-to-date meteorological data needs to be available around the clock. Without this information, flights according to instrument flight rules (IFR) are not permitted. Rega's major project, "Thor", aims to make more weather data available for helicopter operations. In addition, around 60 new weather stations and webcams have been installed all over Switzerland. However, the project does not just stop at collecting data. It is also investigating ways of transmitting this information directly into the helicopter cockpit - so that our pilots can immediately take advantage of this virtually up-to-the-minute weather data.
In spring 2013, Rega’s new simulator for its AgustaWestland Da Vinci mountain helicopters went into operation, representing a key milestone in Rega’s vision of all-weather rescue. In order to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR), helicopter pilots must complete between 400 and 500 hours of intensive theoretical training, as well as a minimum of 55 hours of flight training. All of Rega’s helicopter pilots fly around 50 training hours in the flight simulator and a further 20 training hours in the helicopter. Even after receiving their IFR licence, Rega pilots (and paramedics) are required to complete corresponding exercises in the flight simulator every three months.
With the installation of new operating devices in all of its helicopters, Rega’s large-scale REMICO project was finally brought to a close at the end of 2014. The project, which has already proved to be a great success, also has a decisive impact on Rega’s vision of all-weather rescue; the modernised radio network and the new operating devices in the helicopters allow a better transfer of data between the Operations Centre and the cockpit. Now the mission coordinates can be transmitted directly into the cockpit. In future, the establishment of Rega’s own weather stations should enable weather data to be transmitted both visually and in code form.
The Rega Vision envisages being able to fly a helicopter to any accident site in rough terrain, even in the most adverse weather conditions. This requires systems that allow pilots to "see" risks and obstacles even when visibility is poor. These are known as "synthetic vision systems". Rega had the opportunity to test a system produced by the company, Elbit, on one of its mountain helicopters in autumn 2014. In addition, within the framework of an EU project, two Rega pilots travelled to England to gain initial experience in the simulator with a so-called "head mounted display". These tests allow a comprehensive evaluation to be made for the possible future use of such systems in Rega helicopters.
Already today, thanks to instrument flight rules, the current Rega helicopters can fly by autopilot along predefined routes to various Swiss central hospitals in poor visibility and cross mountainous regions despite low-lying cloud by following the flight routes in the Low Flight Network. One of the last remaining limitations is, however, the icing conditions, which can occur, for example, due to low temperatures in clouds or to heavy snowfall. An anti-icing system would enable flights to be performed even in these conditions, as it heats the critical parts of the helicopter and ensures that no ice builds up there. To date, above all large helicopters are de-iced, but these are too big and heavy to land on hospital helipads and at accident sites.
For this reason, in 2015, Rega commissioned helicopter manufacturer Leonardo to provide it with three new, all-weather AW169-FIPS helicopters within the framework of a development project. However, tests showed that it would not be possible to deliver the ordered rescue helicopters in accordance with the contractually agreed specifications. Consequently, both parties mutually agreed to terminate the purchase agreement. Despite this, it remains Rega’s declared objective to also be able to fly missions for patients under icing conditions. Rega will continue to follow the technological developments very closely and is convinced that one day it will be possible to also equip medium-weight rescue helicopters that are suitable for use by Rega with an anti-icing system.
Press releases, features and videos about the Rega Vision