Ornge is poised to begin testing the use of night vision goggles by its pilots as a way to make flights after dark safer for crews and patients.
By: Bruce Campion-Smith -- Ottawa Bureau
OTTAWA—The pilots who fly Ornge’s air ambulance helicopters may soon have a new skill to guide them through the skies—the ability to see in the dark.
The province’s medical transport agency, which suffered the fatal crash of a helicopter during a night flight in 2013, is poised to begin testing the use of night vision goggles by its pilots as a way to make flights after dark safer for crews and patients.
Dr. Andrew McCallum, the president and CEO of Ornge, said the technology could be a “game-changer.”
Ornge is now training its 11 helicopter pilots at its Sudbury base on how to use the advanced equipment and it has retrofitted an AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter.
Once the training is complete in the coming weeks, the agency will begin a two- to three-month trial using night vision goggles, meant to aid flight crews during their nighttime flights, McCallum said.
Helicopter pilots have told the Star that the high-tech gear could help prevent nighttime accidents by helping flight crews keep their “situational awareness” and avoid becoming disoriented when visual cues are lost.
The agency is hoping the goggles mitigate the risks of flying in and out of so-called black-hole sites. These are landing sites, often in rural areas, where the lack of nearby urban lights leaves the pilots with few visual cues.
Ornge relies on solar lighting to illuminate these sites at night, but the surrounding blackness can be disorienting to pilots during landings and takeoffs.
Indeed, Sudbury was chosen as the site for the trial because it has many of these landing sites.
The agency already has restrictions in place on night flights to these helipads, including weather limits and a requirement that pilots have recent experience operating at the site so they are aware of the topography and potential obstacles.
“We obviously don’t want to risk a crew,” McCallum said.
“We’re very careful about that so the night vision goggles, we think, will be a game-changer in some of those places that are now subject to the black-hole illusion,” he said.
Concerns about night operations were raised by the midnight crash of an Ornge Sikorsky helicopter in Moosonee in 2013. It crashed soon after takeoff, killing two pilots and two paramedics.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has yet to issue a report on the accident. However, a separate probe by Transport Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada issued a damning indictment of Ornge’s operations.
Among its conclusions was that Ornge had failed to ensure that pilots who operate by night visual rules in northern areas of operation are “provided with a means to ensure visual reference is maintained throughout the flight.”