Mario Carretta

Our Unit Chief Pilot, Mario Carretta, provides the answer to a question he gets asked all the time by members of the public: why does the aircraft go back and up during departure?

The fact that the aircraft manoeuvres this way is all about being able to deal with an engine failure at critical times of flight, with departure and landing being top of the list.

In the first instance, the helicopter we use must be designed in such a way that, if an engine does fail in flight and the correct procedures are followed, then it can continue flying and/or make a safe landing. ‘Peggy’, our AW169 helicopter, is designed to meet that requirement and Leonardo test pilots provide us with the flight profiles that we need to follow in various circumstances, which enable us to cope safely should there be an engine failure.

We first learn these procedures in the AW169 simulator, situated near Milan, during our type conversion. We then practise them fully every year when we go back to the simulator for our recurrent training and pilot’s licence check ride. There is also a way of simulating an engine failure in the aircraft, which allows us to practise these emergencies during our six-monthly proficiency checks with Specialist Aviation Services examiners.

To allow us to continue flying after an engine has failed, the engines must meet a ‘minimum performance specification’ and we have to check this every day. At the start of the shift, we spray fresh water into the front of the engine to keep the compressor clean and then we run both engines to dry them out. As part of the drying out process, we check the performance of each engine by noting the engine temperature and speed at a set power setting. Performance graphs are then used to inform us if the engine exceeds the minimum specification.

view from the cockpit air ambulance helicopter sunset

So, going back to the original question – why do we go back and up during departure?

We go back and up to keep the landing site in view, so that if an engine failure occurs before a certain height, we can then land safely back to the spot we have departed from. If the failure occurs after that height, we can fly away and make a safe landing at another suitable location. That height is called a decision point and it varies depending on the height of the obstacles around the landing site, but it is normally around 200 feet above the ground.

This brings up a safety point, which is worth sharing with you all. We always ask people to keep clear of the helicopter during take-off. This is due to the high winds that the rotors generate, which could have the potential to blow someone over or cause loose items to be blown around and injure someone. We also ask that people stay away from the landing site until the helicopter is well clear, just in case there is an issue and we have to land back down immediately. So, if you do meet us out and about, please take on board some of these points to keep yourself safe.

Glastonbury festival from air ambulance helicopter

Views from above

Some of the views that our pilots, co-pilots and clinical team see from the air are incredible. We thought you might like to see just a few. If you are out and about and manage to capture images of our team at work, we would love to see them. You can do this by emailing: [email protected]

National Trust

Main banner image by: Richard Preston Photography