Social distancing in the skies

29 April 2020

As the situation surrounding Covid-19 evolves, Leonardo Helicopters (UK) has found unique ways to adapt social distancing methods to the cockpit ensuring crew safety.

In line with the UK Government, Leonardo UK is continuing operations on its key programmes for the Ministry of Defence amongst others. This is in order to maintain the readiness of the UK’s and its allies’ Armed Forces and the defence of the nation. The AW101 Merlin and AW159 Wildcat helicopters have also been activated for Covid-19 relief supporting operations across the UK, such as transporting key personnel to medicines.

On the airfield and in the skies, the flight operations aircrew is continuing with its essential flight testing across the Leonardo fleet of the Merlin, Wildcat and Super Lynx aircraft.

An innovative helmet and oxygen mask modification now means the crew can operate the aircraft whilst in close proximity to each other in the cockpit.

This novel application was developed by Leonardo Helicopters’ (UK) Deputy Chief Test Pilot, Charlie Pickup, who was assisted by Safety Equipment Officer, Les Medhurst and the Structural and Mechanical Test Engineering Department, Dave Jenkins, Will Miller and Andy Chilcott.

The Chief Test Pilot, Mark Burnand of Leonardo Helicopters (UK), explained more on this technology: “We have taken our existing oxygen mask, which is compatible with our helmets/visors and has a built-in microphone for comms, and hose, and then connected a standard filter from an industrial Respiratory Protection equipment [RPE] face mask.”

Burnand said further how the filters have a screw thread which enables them to be replaced and the mask usually has one or two of the filters fitted.

He continued: “We have modified the end of the hose with a bespoke attachment which allows us to fit the filter effectively and also a connector that allows us to attach the assembly to our life vests securely.”

In addition to the regular personal protective equipment that the crews use including gloves, helmets with visors and layered flight clothing, the crews are utilising their existing oxygen masks and systems, designed for high altitude testing, in combination with the P3 RPE filters this ensures the crews receive uncontaminated air during their essential work. It is important to note that the aircraft maintenance team spend time cleaning the switches and controls with an alcohol solution prior to the crew entering the cockpit and this action is repeated when the crew completes its flight duties.

The new system also reduces the risk to and from the maintainers who service the aircraft before and after the flight. Leonardo Helicopters (UK) has design and operating approvals that permits Aircraft Equipment Assemblies via the Military Aviation Authority.

“We have a standard procedure to go through to evaluate any safety equipment that goes into our aircraft. We assessed the airflow when breathing to ensure no restriction in the flow, then looked at how the hose and filter fitted to our life preservers so that it did not become a loose article in the cockpit or a snagging hazard. We then conducted a cockpit assessment looking at normal cockpit operations and emergency egress with the equipment before final approval was granted.”

The Flight Operations Department is always adapting its methods to ensure safety remains its number one priority – ensuring risks assessments are adhered to and upheld for the whole team.

Norman Bone, Chairman and Managing Director of Leonardo UK, said: “Our colleagues across Leonardo have been adapting their working practices, from remote working to the cockpit, to meet new challenges that they are facing. What the team at Leonardo Helicopters (UK) has developed really embodies the essence of Leonardo demonstrating our creativity, innovation and forward-looking nature.”

In other news, the Italian Air Force’s Leonardo HH-101A Caesar helicopter, assembled in Yeovil, Somerset, is being pressed into civil action for pandemic-response transportation operations in Italy, as the country manages the Covid-19 pandemic. Leonardo has made three helicopters (two AW139 and one AW189) and their pilots available for coronavirus relief and is providing technical support to the Italian Armed Forces’ helicopter fleet, Police Forces and elsewhere where Leonardo helicopters are engaged in emergency response.