Interview: Smooth helicopter operations

Just as the skill of the helmsman is the key to successful embarkation from a tender, so too is extensive pilot experience essential for a much more enjoyable guest transfer experience to and from a yacht by helicopter.

Laurence Perry, Pilot

Laurence Perry, known as “LP”, experienced helicopter pilot on superyachts is now involved in a large superyacht newbuilding project. Read his tips for safe helicopter operations.

What are the weather limits for helicopter deployment?

There are no firm thresholds for wind or sea state. Mine are higher than most, but it also depends on the type of helicopter. With wheels, you can slam down onto the deck as you have some suspension, but ‘fixed gear’ is really just a couple of lengths of metal pipe. Heave is the main factor and having 2,000 tonnes heaving up at you is quite something, combined with roll. I would say 30-knot winds are about the limit, maybe 20 knots true plus the yacht doing 10–13 knots, and 45 knots, the highest relative wind speed.

In what direction should the mother ship be heading for a helicopter landing?

Head to wind if landing with guests, but if with the yacht’s crew or by myself, then I can be more flexible. Ideally the boat heads about ten degrees ‘to starboard’ of head to wind. With the wind 10–20 degrees from port, it cleans the downdraught. One point to note is to always ‘shoot the approach’ towards an imaginary position just to the side of the boat – so if something goes wrong you don’t hit the boat!

How do the yacht’s crew prepare, and how do you approach the landing pad?

Fire crew would be prepared on the flight deck, which has its foam extinguisher nozzles ready to spray, and tenders are launched in water in case of a ditching. You come to a hover and match the speed to the boat with a 45-degree approach from the port aft quarter – the pilot usually sits to starboard so he has a better view like that. Then you slide slowly forward and quietly land. The guys on board are exceptionally well trained. If there is pitch or roll, then they are ready with four straps prepared and, as soon as I land, they run out and fix the helicopter to the deck. I then get out and fix the rotor brake.

In case your helicopter is not perfectly aligned, how do you correct that?

If we need to reposition the helicopter, I can hop up and reland after guests have disembarked. One point to note is that you have a ground cushion if there is a nice, big, flat landing area. But with a small helipad, the downdraught flows down over edges so you get some ‘squidge’ – and there is of course a bit of ‘burble’ over the top of the superstructure!

Is it harder to land on a boat or on a mountain?

Mountain flying is definitely more challenging. With a yacht, there are some visual adjustments to make on the moving pad and a pilot can train easily to land on a boat. In the mountains, with snow blowing and having to find a window to land in, it can be much harder. That is where experience counts. I have accumulated 22,000 hours of flying time over the past 39 years.

What about shadow boats?

I have only worked with a main yacht, but it is not a bad idea to have a shadow boat to store all the gear. Then, of course, you’ll have the logistics to fly over to pick up the party off the main yacht, so you’d still want to have a flight deck there.

What about on-board hangars?

I prefer to keep the helicopter off the boat as much as possible. There is a story of one being lifted off as it was so crusted up with salt and corrosion having been on a boat’s deck for so long!

Can you recommend a specific helicopter model?

I like the (7.5 million US dollars) twin-engine Bell 429, which is capable of operating even if one engine is inoperable. (Some twin engines actually need both to operate which is not so good!) The Canadian Coast Guard use the Bell 429 – ours carries seven passengers plus the pilot and has side bins set up to carry luggage or gear for skiing or surfing trips.

What are your thoughts about commonly called touch-and-go pads on the foredeck?

A main ‘flight deck’ aft plus a ‘touch and go’ on the foredeck works well. For example, if a charterer wants to host a party with a dance floor on the flight deck, I can take off and position the helicopter forward. Also, it can be used to drop off crew or offload supplies in calm conditions, but I would not use it for transporting guests.

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