24Hr emergency line +44 (0)20 8476 4099
Join Balpa

Beyond the norm 2: the wide variety of BALPA membership

by Euan Gibson Aircrewman at Bristow Helicopters

At BALPA, we are proud to be able to represent over 10,000 members. Our diverse membership ranges from commercial airline pilots to drone operators and everything in between. The spring edition of The Log, due to land with members in the next few days, looks at the more specialist categories of BALPA membership as the lead article. Here, in part two of our Beyond the norm blog we speak to Euan Gibson, an aircrewman with Bristow Helicopters. 

I am employed by Bristow Helicopters Limited (BHL) as a search and rescue (SAR) winchman and Health Care Professions Council-registered paramedic, currently operating the S-92 SAR variant. I am based at Prestwick Airport, which has the greatest area to cover of all the SAR bases, so is the busiest unit.

Part of a four-man crew, I am the winchman – or ‘dope on the rope’, as many people call us – but, more importantly, a crewman. Gone are the days when the winchman did just that, and the first aid kit consisted of a couple of plasters and a triangular bandage. With the modern technology of the Sikorsky S-92, AW 189 and 139, SAR technical crew have to be multifunctional – radio operators, navigators, system operators and specialists when working at night using night vision goggles (NVG).

We have to work very closely with the pilots to get the aircraft to the scene of an incident as quickly – but as safely – as possible, at any time of the day or night, and in any weather conditions. But this is only the crewman part of the job. You also have to be able to land on your feet on the deck of a vessel that could be moving 10-20 metres in any direction, depending on the state of the sea; or try to reach a climber who has fallen a considerable distance, or is suspended by his safety ropes and could be in a serious condition as a result of the multiple injuries sustained during the fall. It is then that your paramedic skills are required.

When I was 17, I was a member of the local RNLI lifeboat crew in Girvan, and we often exercised with the Royal Navy (RN) Sea Kings based at HMS Gannet in Prestwick. I was in awe of the aircrewmen being winched down from the aircraft to the deck of our lifeboat, and instantly felt that was the job for me.

I joined the RAF in 1991, but was streamed ‘fixed wing’ out of training – so an Air Loadmaster on C-130 Hercules it was for me. Not until after 9/11 and the start of the war in Afghanistan was I able to realise my dream.

I started my SAR training early in 2002 and was soon operational at E Flt, 202 Sqn, RAF Leconfield. I followed a four-year tour in East Yorkshire with a four-year exchange tour with the RN at Gannet, and finished my RAF career at Boulmer, before starting with Bristow in 2013.

At present, SAR rearcrew are not required to hold a pilot’s licence; this is something we wish to discuss further with BALPA and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). I feel that the technical crew should be licensed in some way, as the job is much more advanced now – and just as we can’t do the job without the pilots, they can’t do the job without us either.

SAR rearcrew have a unique set of skills that we hope to get recognised and protected in a similar way to our pilot colleagues. In civilian SAR, the rearcrew training package would usually take about two months. Effectively, what we do is an aircraft conversion and differences course. The company has employed several rearcrew members who have no SAR background, including air- and road-ambulance paramedics. The training in this scenario would be commensurate with their experience and ability, but certainly a lot quicker and cheaper than a commercial pilot.

The medical training takes the longest to achieve. All of our winchmen are either registered paramedics or are undergoing training to gain registration. This has now become a modular course and takes about two years to complete.

In SAR, we provide a service 24/7, 365 days a year, but can fly at any time, on training, during our duty period between 13.00hrs and 22.00hrs, and between 08.00hrs and 13.00hrs on the morning of the second day.

No two days – and no two flights – are the same. We can practice cliff winching, complete that serial, fly a circuit and return to the same position, but the whole picture would have changed. The wind may have backed, veered, reduced or increased; the tide will have changed and the whole setup of what you have just seen will have altered. The same can be said for deck winching, wets and mountain flying, which poses the greatest challenge in the depths of a Scottish winter.

Our shift pattern comprises a 24-hour shift, 13.00-13.00, during which we maintain 15-minute readiness to fly between 08.00hrs and 22.00hrs and 45-minutes readiness between 22.00hrs and 08.00hrs. We can work any combination of shifts v time off, but a run of four straight shifts is used sparingly to avoid fatigue, especially if you have been called out on SAROPs between the hours of 22.00 and 08.00.

BALPA membership is very important for aircrewmen. We work alongside the pilots and are governed by the CAA in the same way, so we should be privileged to have a body to look after our interests.

On 1st April this year, BHL – on behalf of the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) – will have its final base on line, completing the UKSAR contract. Within SAR, there are more crewmen than pilots, representing more than 33 per cent of all aircrew employed by the company. The tide has changed, and it is so important to have the same rights within BALPA as our pilot colleagues.

I would recommend anyone who is employed in the aviation industry to join BALPA. Knowing that support is always at the end of the phone is very comforting.