For Haida Gwaii and the North Coast, there are three helicopters suited for transporting patients under the B.C. Ambulance Service requirements. This month, they are the latest to be converted for compatibility with night-vision goggles.
“It really enhances the safety of flying at night,” said Steven Morrow, one of the air ambulance pilots at the Helijet base in Prince Rupert.
The goggles, Morrow said, look like a small set of binoculars that attach to the pilot’s helmet. A pilot can see through them, but there’s enough room to look down at the cockpit.
“It’s a dark hole out there. ‘Night flight black hole’ is actually a term used for the dangers of flying at night. You leave Prince Rupert, it’s completely dark. You don’t see anything unless the moon is out and there’s no cloud — and that doesn’t happen too often around here.”
Before the installation of night vision technology, pilots had to fly at night by designated routes, and take cloud ceiling limitations into consideration.
“That means we’re 1,000 feet above any obstacle within three miles on either side of our track. Because it’s dark out there and you can’t see things, you’re assured you’re in a safe area if you’re on that track and you’re going to a destination.”
Morrow, who has more than 27 years of experience flying as an air ambulance pilot, said that once the helicopter returns to Prince Rupert, the pilots will undergo training with the new equipment. It may be four months before the newly-equipped helicopter is operational, Morrow said.
“Once we’ve reached that advanced level of experience, then we can actually bring that altitude down. Our weather requirements won’t be so stringent at night to be able to go flying,” he said.
The impact of the new equipment won’t be known until Helijet has used it for a while, but Morrow said it may allow them to go to new destinations during night routes.
In the meantime, the Prince Rupert base will use one of their older models, which features the same air ambulance kit. The night vision conversion comes six years after Vancouver and Prince Rupert upgraded their helicopters to the newer model of the Sikorsky 76C, which gave them more power, to stay up-to-date with their B.C. Air Ambulance Service contract.