Jun 17, 2023

Hoist cable management

Mario Pierobon examines the rescue process of hoist cable management – detailing the inherent dangers of this crucial procedure

When it comes to cable management and preventing snag or entanglement, exceptional training and solid emergency procedures (EP) are an absolute priority. Indeed, avoiding hoist cable snag situations is an area of helicopter operations where continuous improvement is imperative.

To avoid a cable snag, hoist crews practice extensive cable management, affirmed Cory Armstrong, Business Development/ Lead SME at Bluedrop Training & Simulation. “Cable management is the responsibility of the hoist operator, as well as any search and rescue (SAR) technician that might be on the ground or deck during a rescue operation,” he said. “Slack must be managed in a way that allows enough for pilot drift, but limits the ability for the cable to become entangled with obstacles within the rescue area.”

Cable management is a significant part of hoist/winch operations from the beginning of hoist training for all positions in the aircraft, according to Jason Quinn, an SR3 Rescue Concepts instructor and host of The Real ResQ Podcast. “When conducting any type of hoist training class, we go over EPs quite a bit throughout the course. From the basic hoist to advanced and complex operations, cable management is a topic that we continue to reiterate at all levels,” he explained. “All members of the crew play an active part in helping prevent a cable snag or entangled cable/hoist hook or hang up. As we get into operations, we are looking at the pilot to hold a steady hover. With the pilot maintaining a position over the target, the load is kept relatively stable as hoist operations commence.”

At DRF Luftrettung, hoist crews are instructed in the facts of the rope rollover in training courses and according to the training manual of the winch manufacturer, as well as the specifications of the Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) holder of the helicopter, affirmed Sebastian Schneider, Training Manager for Hoist Operations at DRF Luftrettung. “This basis is deepened in on-the-job training by empirical values of the enterprise from the past. We have integrated this into our procedures that the hoist operator at the beginning of the winch cycle, and the end, has to look into the viewing window to check if the cable is properly rolled up,” he said. “In this way, crews are alert and prepared to react adequately in case of failure.”

For the prevention of rope damage in general, and to ensure the greatest possible safety, a wide variety of checks are carried out – and the hoist rope is maintained at the end of each training session and day of operation, affirmed Schneider. “We perform a so-called cable conditioning at prescribed intervals, where the maximum hoist load is applied to reduce any twists in the cable, ensuring that it’s spooled on the drum correctly. A good training program, technical understanding, situational awareness, teamwork and respect in handling are key to success. However, regular repetition of the measures is also important,” he stated.

Good communication and crew resource management (CRM) are essential to prevent snags or entangled cable/hoist hook or hang up, said Quinn. “The hoist operator should be able to give clear instructions as to what is going on as the cable goes below the aircraft and/or a load is coming back in. All positions should have a clear brief on insertion and extraction. How it is going to get there – i.e. static, dynamic or a mix of both – and where we are going to go,” he explained. “For the brief on the extraction, we need to set up the aircraft for a solid plum pick-up. During execution, one will begin to pick the load up off the ground and, if possible, hold a few feet off the ground to ensure stability of the aircraft, load, and person on the hook. This will help prevent snags or entangled cable/hoist hook or hang up.”

With tactics and techniques for hoist cable best practice and risk avoidance, Armstrong observed that hoist crews survey the rescue area to assess the hoist target location with the least amount of risk. “The current situation must be assessed to include all environmental factors. Once the crew is comfortable with the location and technique for the specific rescue, there is a constant awareness and communication of the environment conditions to monitor for any change,” he said. “Techniques used for emergency procedures and risk avoidance alter during different phases of the rescue. They usually depend on if the survivor is on the hook or not. Training on a simulator offering high-fidelity dynamic hoist cables will improve proficiency for cable management.”

According to Quinn, it is the job of the rescuer (or whoever is riding the hook and will be on the ground) to help with positive cable management. “Whether they are being hoisted to a wide-open area, a confined area, a cliff face or in the water, rescuers should be looking to help with maintaining awareness of the cable’s location. In addition, they must pay attention to the surrounding area and what could potentially snag the cable or themselves,” he said. “I personally have been pulled through trees, bumped against boats and walked on the side of cliff faces. No matter the situation, one of my responsibilities is to keep an eye on the cable and do what I can to protect my ‘lifeline’, the cable, as I am being hoisted.” Another vital position is hoist operator, who has a significant responsibility regarding cable management and the prevention of snags or entangled cable/hoist hook or hang up, continued Quinn. “One of the things we like to teach hoist operators is to ‘own the cable’. It is their job to get into it and make the cable do what they want it to do. One can think about the cable as a whip or a rope on the ground. You manipulate one end which, in turn, affects the other end – similar to the hoist cable,” he said.

In case the load is too heavy and there are difficulties, it is possible to use the helicopter, affirmed Quinn. “Input on the controls by the pilots can also help manipulate the cable or load. When operating the hoist, I practice this as often as possible. It allows me to know what I can and can’t do with the cable and load.”

Hoist manufacturers have designed products to have a single point payout, said Armstrong. “This reduces the potential for hoist-induced load swings, helping to limit the chance that a load swing would get snagged or entangled within the rescue environment,” he said. “Cable makers’ primary focus is to ensure that their products are tested and rated properly for the hoist rescue and applications they are designed for. It is up to the operator and maintenance personnel to ensure the cable is kept up to standard throughout its lifecycle on the hoist. Depending on what the cable is snagged with, the hoist cable may be recovered through manipulation of the cable/aircraft or cut immediately for crew safety.”

Zephyr offers an emergency cable cutter called ‘AxelCut’, used in an entanglement situation. “If the situation warrants, the hoist itself has a pyrotechnic cable shearing system that, once used, renders the hoist unserviceable. If the situation allows, the AxelCut provides an opportunity to attach a Quick Splice emergency hook and continue the mission,” said Michael Mitchell, Zephyr President.

According to Schneider, compared with 30 years ago, hoist systems are

more technically innovative and have more integrated safety features. “Examples include rope pretensioning mechanisms: i.e. complex drum systems with a rope guiding principle, designed to preventively minimize hazardous situations. Looking into the future, the same applies to electronic monitoring of the system, although these can fail, due to a defect. Ultimately, it is the hoist operator who visually monitors the entire system in operation and can thus react to reduce or even prevent the worst-case scenario,” he explained.

According to Quinn, it is necessary to be prepared for all eventualities. “There should be some sort of procedure set up for a type of snag or entangled cable/ hoist hook or hang up. This is ready and practiced, so that when the time comes, the crew is ready to go. For example, there may be an emergent snag situation that could require an immediate shear of the cable,” he said.

Additionally, a cable may get stuck, but the aircraft is stable and the situation can be addressed, affirmed Quinn. “For example, try a manual untangle. Maybe it is possible to manipulate the aircraft to help undo the snag, or perhaps ground personnel can assist with the hang up. However, if none of those work, one should be prepared to cut the cable manually or shear it.”

The bottom line is to avoid complacency at all costs. “One should always remember that this is a dangerous job. If people work together as a crew, with those in the air helping those on the ground and vice versa, things should go very smoothly,” concluded Quinn.

Mario Pierobon is a safety management consultant and content producer. He writes extensively about aviation safety and has in-depth knowledge of the European aviation safety regulations on both fixed and rotary wing operations. His rotary wing expertise is concerned primarily with specialised operations and the operations requiring specific approval, such as HEMS, hoist operations and performance-based navigation.

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