Helicopters and Evacuations at High Altitude

If you’re responsible for creating your company’s plan to evacuate mobile employees for medical, meteorological, or geopolitical reasons, consider altitude when developing your strategy. You should review a number of factors, but focus especially on your evacuation vehicle of choice—and remember, helicopters don’t fly quite so well at high altitude.

Ever since Igor Sikorsky created the first mass-produced helicopter in 1944, rotary-winged aircraft have been the go-to vehicle for quick, short-range evacuations. Unlike most fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters need no runway to land, and can hover in relative safety above the ground while waiting for evacuees to arrive at the landing zone. They’re an easy choice for travel managers who are developing a modern, effective evacuation plan for mobile employees.

Helicopters, however, have a number of weaknesses—including difficulty flying at high altitude. The rotors of a helicopter work most effectively in dense air, where their circular motion generates maximum lift. At high altitude, air density gradually decreases, which in turn degrades the lift characteristics of the rotor system and decreases the flight stability of airframes. The U.S. Army, having learned in Afghanistan how perilous high-altitude helicopter operations can be, created a flight school in Colorado dedicated to teaching pilots how to fly at high altitude.

When choosing an evacuation vehicle and service, you should consider this particular aspect of altitude. In some high altitude areas, alternative methods of evacuation—though they may take more time—may ultimately be a better choice for the safety of your evacuees. In other cases, when a helicopter is the best or only option, ensure that the service you use trains its pilots extensively in high-altitude operations. Pilots who have extensive experience flying at sea level but no high-altitude training will likely endanger your evacuees.

Originally published on Tuesday, September 17, 2013
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