The elevation of the Himalayan mountains puts them at the extreme of human and helicopter performance. For climbers it can be a 2 week trek out or a 30 min helicopter flight to safety if they find themselves in trouble.
Andrew Gutsell is part of the Alpine Rescue Service run by Air Dynasty that services the region around Mt Everest. The team bases out of Lukla Airport (9,300ft) in order to maintain high altitude acclimatization and consists of a handful of aircrew, doctors, paramedics or nurses at any time. From here the service uses AS350B3 (H125) helicopters to reach Basecamp, the small camps higher up on Mt Everest and villages in the area.
Supplementary oxygen is standard mission equipment with flights right up to the 23,000ft legal limit for the aircraft. For some patient pickups the avaliable performance limits the number of people on board to just the pilot to allow for the weight of the climber. For rescues above this height a team of sherpas will have to recover the patient and bring them down to lower altitudes.
At the higher camps the helicopters are always kept running rather than shutdown and risk any complications starting in the thin air. Any helicopter that gets stuck up there is unlikely to ever be recovered as there is nothing with the lift capacity at those altitudes to recover it.
Weather is also a significant constraint on operations. Flights are mainly done in the morning when the katabatic or downslope winds are smoother. Flying after 2pm is avoided to reduce the chance of being stuck in the mountains with fading light.
Andrew is a New Zealand pilot that started out flying in the mountains of New Zealand and operating to the south island glaciers. He is one of a handful of ex-pat pilots flying in Nepal. In this episode Andrew talks about the environment that you can expect to find in the Everest region and the challenges to operating a helicopter rescue service there.
Andrew and two other New Zealand Alpine Rescue Service team members, Andrew Roy (Paramedic) and Alyssa Lowe (Nurse) have just been awarded the Royal Humane Society (of NZ) Silver Medal for Rescue Services after their actions as first responders at a May 2017 aircraft crash at Lukla airstrip (video at the bottom of this page). The pilot died on impact, the co-pilot later that night and the hostess was flown out to Kathmandu in the morning when the weather cleared. The New Zealand Governor-General will present the awards at Government House, Wellington some time in mid 2018.
The Air Dynasty team and Andrew are featured in the TV series Everest Air.
Google Street View of Lukla Airport
2017 Aircraft crash at Lukla airfield where Andrew and co-workers were involved in first response.
Do you have a question for Andrew about flying ops in Nepal or about something mentioned in the episode that you want to ask? Be part of the conversation by leaving a comment below.