How to Hover in a Helicopter With Your Search Hound

Introduction

Helicopters can be a wonderful resource as eyes in the sky, communication, and as transport.  They can get you to a search quickly and even fly you to places inaccessible to other vehicles.  Introduce your Search and Rescue dog to flying safely in a helicopter.

Parts of a helicopter

Dog Safety Gear

doggles muzzle muttmuffs

Helicopters are loud, blow debris, and filled with sensitive equipment.  There are four items your dog will need for a safe flight.

Eye Protection

Eye protection will save your dog’s eyes from the dust and debris kicked up by the rotors while loading and unloading. I have found Doggles work quite well and come in a variety of colors and styles.  Grom really likes his and barely knows they are on. You can buy them from the manufacturer here http://doggles.com/ or at many area pet stores.

Ear Protection

Dogs have more sensitive hearing than we humans do.  I imagine the noises from the helicopter engine may be quite bothersome. I chose to solve the problem with using ear protection for horses. It is made from a sort of memory foam that expands and comfortably fills the ear canal providing a nice fit.  Grom is no horse, so I simply cut them in half and then down to size. Once I put them in his ears, he completely forgot about them.

If your dog hates having his ears messed with, try MuttMuffs. Daisy the GSD mystery mix is sporting a pair in the picture above.  She absolutely hates having her ears touched, but gladly trotted around with these professional looking “ears.”

Muzzle

Even the sweetest dog will use her mouth when terrified. An unexpected bump of turbulence can cause your dog to react and turn the inside of the cockpit into chaos.  Protect everyone with a properly fitted muzzle on your pup. Make sure your dog can comfortably drink water and pant while wearing his muzzle.

We decided to have an online company custom make a ventilation wire muzzle to fit our Malinois after several failed muzzle fittings at our local stores.  He looks like Hannibal Lecter, but fits beautifully allowing Grom to fully open his mouth and has great airflow.  Here is where we got it: http://www.fordogtrainers.com/

Harness

The most important piece of equipment is your dog harness.  It must be very sturdy and able to handle your dog’s weight and stay ON no matter how much your dog wiggles, trashes, or pulls to get out of it.  His harness is what will keep him in his seat during the ride, a possible handle for loading and unloading your dog from the aircraft, and something to safely grab and secure your dog. We thought our dog’s very thick search harness would do the trick, but he managed to wiggle out of it to get away from the wash of the helicopter.  It made my heart stop I tell you.  His agitation/tracking harness did a much better job at keeping him secure.

I would suggest an agitation, tracking, or rappelling harness to do the job.  Look for harnesses that have a handle or somewhere to grab, fit him properly for it, and make darn sure he cannot get out of it no matter what.  The harness is where you will attach your leash and where you will run the seatbelt through to keep him secure to the seat.

Practice at home

The sight and sound of a running helicopter may not be something easily simulated at home, but there are some things you can do to get ready.

First, practice loading and unloading out of the back seat of a car.  In the picture above, I am teaching Grom to put his paws up in the car and wait. This position gets him out of the wind and sound created by the rotors calming him down.  If I step up behind him, he is in the perfect place to allow me to load up my gear and prepare to load while blocking movement away from the helicopter.  I can grab his collar or harness with one hand easily if he gets spooked.

Practice running a seatbelt through his harness in the back seat of the car.  Seat belts in choppers tend to be similar to those found in airplanes and cars. See if you can quickly put your headset on, latch him in, nestle your gear in place, and latch yourself in safely.

Take your dog to a safe place next to busy train tracks.  NEVER let him off leash here.  The loud sound of the train and the wind does a good job simulating some of the effects your dog will feel when approaching a running helicopter.  Give your dog tons of pea sized treats (like cut up hot dogs) one at a time every time a train goes by.

Meet the Crew

The pilot is captain of his ship.  Do absolutely everything he tells you.

The flight officer is responsible for your safety.  If you are lucky to have one, they will help you load and unload yourself, your dog, and your cargo. Due to temperature, weather, altitude, and weight restrictions, you might not be accompanied by anyone other than the pilot.

Cold Run

Before you try to load yourself and your dog into a “hot” running helicopter, go through a cold run with the engine off first.  A cold run is your chance to get the rules, safety, learn how to communicate, ask questions, and familiarize yourself with the craft. Pay special attention to the order in which you will need to do things when approaching and loading.  Observe how doors lock, unlock, open, and latch. Be sure to note where everything is located; often the headset is put away, doors are locked, and seat belts are latched at all times. You should also experiment with where your gear goes.  Ask yourself several questions, such as:

Can you reach and operate things you need to while holding your dog with your other hand? Where are you allowed to step? What things should you avoid?

Notes Before you Approach

TV shows have given us some pretty silly ideas about what to do around helicopters.  Here are a few things of note:

The pilot sits on the right seat of the cockpit. (Yeah, it’s backwards.)

Rotors

Rotors are the spinny bits that give the helicopter lift and go. Despite what you saw on TV, you do not typically need to duck down low to avoid the blades.  Beware, a very strong gust of wind or landing on a slanted hill may cause the rotors to dip down lower than normal so don’t go jumping up and down or waving at your friends until you are well clear.

Rotors do create quite a gust of wind when they are spinning.  Watch for debris  blown around and protect your eyes.

Speaking of debris, make sure to secure all lose items on your body.  Take off and pocket, pack, or secure your hat, sunglasses, jewelry, cellphone, clothing and other items.  Loose items can be sucked up into the rotors and effectively kill your helicopter.

Approach

First, stay back at least 100 feet keeping in view of the cockpit.  Next, give a thumbs up signal to indicate to the pilot that you are ready.  Wait for him to return the signal before approaching the aircraft. Then, approach the aircraft from the front staying within the pilots view and look him in the eye.  Never approach the aircraft from the tail end or the tail rotor will be your end.  Keep your dog very close to you using a leash or even hold on to his harness while you walk. Be aware that your dog may decide to bolt at anytime especially when you get close to the aircraft.

Loading

Loading and unloading are the times you are most likely to have problems.  With so much going on you don’t want to accidentally drop  your dog’s leash while opening a door and have a scared pup loose on the tarmac.  Until your dog is belted in his seat, have your hand on your dogs leash or harness at all times.

The first thing you should do after opening the passenger door, is put your headset on and put the mic all the way up to your mouth. (Eat the Mic) This will allow the pilot and you to communicate. Secure your dog in the seat with a seat belt through the harness and an additional tie down on a secure point nearby to keep him in his seat.

Next, secure your gear in its place and belt yourself into your seat.  Finally, make sure the door is properly closed, latched, and locked.  Notify the pilot when you are ready.

The ride

The ride is the wonderful part of the journey where you get to relax and let the pilot do all the hard work.  Keep your pup’s muzzle on for everyone’s safety while in the cabin.  Make sure he is comfortable and relaxed.

Remember, keep your hands to yourself, touch nothing in the helicopter.

Unloading

To unload, if you have a flight officer wait until she comes to your door before attempting to exit.  If you have no flight officer, wait until the pilot says it is ok to leave.  After opening the door, be sure to take off your headset first.  Get all of your gear out of the cabin and situated so you may grab it with one hand after closing the door.

Re-latch your seatbelt. Then, untie your dog and get him out of his seatbelt. Be sure to re-latch his seatbelt. You may lift or lead your dog out of the helicopter while always keeping a secure hold on his harness or leash.  This is a fine time for him to take off. Your dog should be the last thing out of the chopper. All you have left now is to close, latch, lock the door, grab your gear and go.  Just make sure to wave goodbye only after clearing the rotors.

Have you ever ridden in a helicopter? What are your tips?

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One Response to “How to Hover in a Helicopter With Your Search Hound”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I am a helicopter mechanic and I think this review is spot on. I work around heli’s all day everyday. I have a rule that if I cannot see the pilots eyes, he/she cannot see me. Always wait for them to signal you to approach and never ever EVER from the rear or stoop under the tailboom (near the fuselage). You are completely out of sight in these places. One last suggestion, people get excited around helicopters. Its ok in my opinion to be excited on the inside, but you better be cool as a cucumber on the outside. Your nervousness can be disruptive to the pilot. If you are overly nervous, just say so, the pilots are trained to calm people down. But try to minimize disruption, even down to talking as little as possible.

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