Soft Top 29 has been teasing everyone on the SAR forum for some time now with his idea for aerial search. Well, SARworld has finally persuaded TJ to publish his thoughts in this SARworld Bank Holiday Special Report.
TJ has been thinking about how to utilise Paramotor and Ultra Light aircraft to assistance in search and rescue operations.
Here are his thoughts;
Paramotor and Ultra Light Search And Rescue.
Paramotor and Ultra Light Search And Rescue (PULSAR) is a concept I have been thinking about for several months which combines my long history of volunteering, a hobby I would love to take up and a professional background that involves all these elements.
Volunteering has been part of my life since I was 10. I was firstly a cadet with St John Ambulance and progressed onto various leadership roles. My first large challenge was Exercise SOVEREIGN 1, which I organised to test the call out procedures of various St John units. I have been an assistant operations planner at county level and have held the post of County Community Responder Manager, looking after volunteer 999 responders in partnership with the ambulance service.
Professionally I have served in both the Territorial Army and the regular RAF. I trained as a helicopter crewman, completing the Search And Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) short course. I left the air force to join the ambulance service to become an ambulance technician. I am currently training as a paramedic, completing my foundation degree in paramedic science.
My interest in paramotoring began after reading an article about aircraft that were cheap and simple to fly. I was hooked as I saw the potential for affordable flight. I still haven't made it into the air although I hope to remedy this as soon as possible (after my paramedic studies are completed!). Knowing my own past has meant I would want to do something with my flying, rather than just bimble around the sky. I knew from my research that SAR had been suggested with these lightweight ultra portable powered aircraft and I wondered if anyone was using them in the UK. Whilst reading the paramotorclub.org forum, it was suggested that the use of paramotors would be more economical for tasks such as delivering a prescription than the RAF SAR Sea King that had been used in the recent snowy weather. I couldn't help but agree, which is when I started searching for SAR information – and came across SAR World.
A picture paints a thousand words. (see above)
This aircraft (part of the 'ultra light' family) is legally the equivalent of riding a bike on the road. To ride a push bike you don't need a licence although you do need to obey road traffic law. To fly a paramotor you don't need a licence or training, although you do need to obey air law. Having said that you don't need a licence, it is strongly recommended that you have training and there are instructors around the country that can accommodate this. The best are those that have a full operations manual and flying syllabus for their activities.
The aircraft consist of three main components, a wing, a motor and a harness. The wing and its attachments are the most safety critical. Wings are made much like a parachute although specific to paramotoring and paragliding. They consist of cells that fill with air and maintain rigidity through the 'ram air' principal, where air is 'rammed' into the front, keeping the material in shape. Typically a wing will last 300 hours flying time or 2-3 years. The harness is based on the paragliding harness although there are specific differences, namely upright seating and an attachment for the motor and propeller. The motor is generally 2-stroke (you have to mix fuel and oil to keep it running) although there are 4 stroke motors coming onto the market, (the current world champion flew a four stroke) and electric motors are being developed.
Paramotors are 'fair weather' aircraft. A wind of 15-20MPH may be too much to launch in although higher altitude winds can assist in expediting a flight. Flying in rain, while possible, is not recommended, even if you were able to legally see far enough. Very hot sun can cause thermal activity that can make piloting 'exciting' although some pilots seek out thermals to increase altitude, getting 'free' lift. Visibility requirements are a legal requirement, which makes some inclement weather flying illegal. On the flip side, a sunny winters day is perfect for flying (if a little chilly) as thermal activity is minimal due to the weak sun and visibility is usually fantastic!
As previously mentioned, paramotor pilots need to observe air law. Whilst being simple, it is best summed up as, you can't go anywhere dangerous, and some places you can only go when you have special permission, including some launch and landing areas. You must fly a specific distance away from buildings and people. You can't get paid to fly a paramotor unless training someone else to fly on a tandem rig.
Paramotor training can be given by anyone. Because of this it is recommended that advice be sought from others. There are web forums that can give advice as to potential instructors; however there is no minimum qualification that needs to be held to teach would be pilots. Some organisations are now becoming much more professional in their approach and have systems in place to make their training much more robust. Training is not necessarily cheap either.
As with any adventure sport, equipment requires considerable investment. Thousands of pounds need to be spent on new equipment, with variable after sales service. UK based manufacturers can be contacted more easily. As paramotor equipment doesn't have to conform to any legal standard, then purchases are made under UK trading law rather than any kind of air worthiness certificate. Indeed, there are a few people whose own 'DIY' paramotors look very impressive. Again advice can be sought from web forums.
In order to transit through or fly into/out of Air Traffic Control Zones (ATZs) you need to be able to talk to controllers. Also to ensure that SAR can be undertaken, an air band radio should be used. To do this an aviation radio licence is required. It's a different style of radio usage that can take a bit of getting used to.
Human factors are probably the biggest risk to any form of flying. It's not the machine, but the person piloting it. In the heat of flying and searching it is easy to forget the flying aspect, which is where recognition of hazardous search/flying combinations need to be made.
You need to be 'reasonably' fit to fly a paramotor. As the aircraft are entirely borne by the pilot before and during launch, you should be able to hold the weight of the motor and harness, 'kite' the wing to get it in the air and run with this combination until airborne.
Once training has been completed, it is easy to get into the air. Ensure you have permission to fly from your launch site, and then off you go. Make sure you stay in legal airspace in sensible weather and that's it. Inflate the wing, take a few steps and you're into the air, there's no runway or dedicated base required. The simplicity makes it easy.
2-stroke engines are cheap as chips to run per hour. The average tank holds 12 Litres with the average motor running at 3 litres an hour. 3 – 4 hours endurance can get you a good distance or keep you in a thorough search pattern .
There has been some debate on this forum as to the best mapping to use. I don't know for sure because, as previously stated, I have no ground search experience. However the ability to use satellite mapping has been discussed as it gives good pictorial coverage of an area. A paramotor has the ability to give this coverage 'live'. This is useful in a number of ways; a search of large open areas could be conducted by the pilot, the pilot could direct other searchers to areas that can't be 'penetrated' by the pilot (eg woods), the pilot could work as a rebro station for search teams and obstructions (such as large corn fields) can be searched from height in an efficient manner.
The paramotor has a relatively low ground speed especially when flying into wind, in much the same manner as a helicopter, enabling a detailed look at the ground. This allows direction to be given from a controller or team as to any area that may warrant further investigation that cannot be accessed from the ground. An example might be a steep embankment that is physically difficult to climb or conversely a gully that would take time to access and search.
Tandem operations are possible as aircraft that can take a pilot and a trainee pilot are available. This is a point of air law, as paramotors cannot be used to take passengers, although they can be used to train future pilots. This would enable a division of labour to occur as one of the operators can handle the aircraft whilst the other conducts search operations.
Other search equipment such as IR, cameras, GPS and tracking equipment can be added as funds and experience allow, although the good old Mk I human eyeball will be the best component of the paramotor SAR aircraft.
There are probably other advantages and disadvantages, although these are the main ones I have thought about and I don't want to clog this section of the article with that detail. I'll leave that for later!
So how could this practically work?
Firstly SAR organisations and their 'activating bodies' whether police, military or coastguard would be invited to use the services of PULSAR. If this was accepted, a provisional memorandum of understanding would need to be negotiated to ensure that everyone agreed with the concept of operations. I understand this is a similar way that ALSAR units work with LSDogs.
Flying training would need to be completed and continuation training undertaken. This can be provided by anyone although there are several paramotor schools that offer a syllabus rather than offering off the cuff training. After this initial training and a specified amount of hours flying and a minimum number of competencies (eg take off/landing, nil wind/reverse take off, engine on/off landings, flights in controlled airspace, cross country distance) had been achieved, operational training could then be started. This would be the 'search' training. Based on the RAF Search And Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) syllabus, with input from other organisations using paramotors for SAR ops, an excellent syllabus could be written. This would need to be completed before going live on search ops and to ensure currency was maintained after initial qualification.
After training is complete and pilots were ready to go live, a period of exercising would be essential to enable pilots and ground teams to become comfortable with any new operational techniques that might come about with the use of a new resource.
It is envisaged that Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) liaison would be key to the success of this project as they give excellent advice to general and sports aviation pilots and organisations. There are several documents that would need to be written, including a flight operations manual. This is where CAA guidance is crucial, as they have pro-forma copies of all documentation needed for safe operations.
Having many years of voluntary experience and wanting to take up new challenges has culminated in my thoughts to create PULSAR, a new organisation using paramotor aircraft in search operations. There are advantages and disadvantages in using paramotors, although as has already been mentioned on this forum, more resources is always better and unused specialist resources can always be diverted to the ground if needs be. This post has identified some of the potential uses paramotors could be in the SAR environment and how pilots could be trained to search effectively.
Some areas such as finance and insurance haven't been covered here, although they have been considered. I have a few ideas about these admin activities and these are relatively easy to overcome. Really I'm looking for opinions of you guys, the lowland SAR experts. In theory, could this resource be useful to you in an operational sense. How would you use it in a search? What aspects haven't I thought of here? What improvements would you make? Please be as objective as you can, if you see a problem, what would your solution be?
It's great to see innovation on the ground in the use of dogs and cycles, is the sky the limit?
I really look forward to hearing from you on the forum.
All the best,
Tj, Soft Top 29
PULSAR (a concept)
You can discuss this article on our SAR forum post on paramotor and ultra light search and rescue here...