The Recco SAR Helicopter Detector is saving operators and rescuers time and resources when locating avalanche victims. Currently in use by seven helicopter operators across Europe, the detector’s success overseas led to its introduction to the North American market in December 2018. Since then, Two Bear Air in Whitefish, Montana; North Shore Rescue in Vancouver, British Columbia; and the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) Aero Bureau in Salt Lake City have added the detector to their operations.
Since receiving the Recco SAR Helicopter Detector just under a year ago, Utah DPS has deployed the system on three avalanche incidents, and was successful in locating the victim each time.
“We serve the entire state of Utah,” said Luke Bowman, chief pilot at Utah DPS. “Utah is very diverse and has a lot of remote areas. . . . With all three avalanches we got ahead and we were able to mark an area within roughly 20 feet of the victim. What we do is we find a location and then we insert a [ground crewmember] with a handheld Recco device and a canine. . . . So, within a half-hour [or] 45 minutes, we’ve been able to get a find and dig the person out.
“So far, [the Recco device] has been great to minimize people’s exposure to risk and the exhaustion of the ground crews, and its able to speed up the [search] process quite a bit.”
The idea behind the Recco detector followed a tragic incident in 1973 when Magnus Granhed, who is still one of the principals of the company, lost his friend in an avalanche. While taking part in the search using a probe pole, which can be a very slow process, Granhed thought there had to be a better way to find people.
The Recco detector started out as a handheld device, which emits a signal that hits a Recco reflector in a piece of outerwear on the victim and echoes back to the rescuer — allowing the rescuer to pinpoint the victim’s location. The helicopter detector, which was first tested in 2014, works the same way. The battery-powered helicopter detector can hook up to either the hoist cable or the belly hook as an external load, and uses Bluetooth to connect to the control head in the cockpit.
Utah DPS initially used the Recco detector on the hoist of its Airbus H125, but has since switched to using it on the belly hook for a few reasons; the detector weighs roughly 170 pounds (77 kilograms), and Bowman said if it’s attached to the hoist, an extra crewmember is required to control the cable.
“Most of these avalanches that we’ve responded to have been up really high, like 10 or 11,000 feet,” he said. “To have three people on board, plus trying to manage the cable, and it’s windy — that was creating some problems. So, [Recco offers] the belly hook option . . . and we’re doing it that way now. It’s a lot easier because the pilot can control it like a sling load.”
Utah DPS also operates an Airbus AS350 B2, which is not equipped with a hoist; operating the Recco detector from the belly of the aircraft allows the organization to use the detector on both of its helicopters.
Ultimately, each operator develops their own protocols on how they want to use the Recco detector, whether on the aircraft’s hoist or the belly hook, said Daniel Howlett, Recco’s director of training and technical support in North America. “There’s a lot of hangar practice, and [the operators] thoughtfully decide the best configuration of [the Recco detector] for their aircraft . . . and then they fly with it in practice.”
Howlett worked with Utah DPS to train its pilots and crew to use the Recco detector, as he has done with many organizations. “I go over the principles, how the detector works and the best flight patterns for different types of terrain,” he said. Pilots and crew practice flying with the detector using visual targets, and then transition to hidden targets.
When flying with the detector at a speed up to 62 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour), operators begin with a large radius below the helicopter, up to 328 feet (100 meters) wide, and fly a pattern until a signal is received — which comes in the form of a beeping sound, Bowman said. The beep strengthens as the detector gets closer to the victim, and crews mark where the signal is strongest. The pilot then flies perpendicular to the strongest point and a marker is dropped.
Before the helicopter detector, Utah DPS initially used the Recco Handheld Detector, “so we knew the effectiveness of the whole system,” said Bowman. “We’ve been really happy with it . . . we love it.”
There are now over 2,000 handheld detectors in the world in 800 ski resorts and search-and-rescue organizations, and over 15,000 professional rescue workers who are trained to use Recco, said Howlett.
With over 200 clothing brand partners, the Recco reflector is implanted in a wide range of winter gear, which is why the detector is used primarily for avalanche searches. However, Howlett said the reflector is now also being introduced into summer and fall clothing, so people spending time outdoors during these seasons can be more easily located if they become lost.
“If you think about winter rescue and avalanche rescue, it’s pretty small on the scale when you talk about missing people in the summer,” said Howlett. “The search-and- rescue organizations throughout the country are really, really busy in the summer because there’s so much more activity.”
He emphasized that a major factor in successfully locating missing people is knowing if they have the Recco reflector in their clothing. “From the search-and-rescue viewpoint, we have to know if you’re searchable,” said Howlett, “and the only way we know that is if you tell people and let your family and friends know that you have a Recco reflector.”