Helicopter Safety Guidelines* for You 
and Your Police K-9 or Search Dog

Nick Razum  1992-2013 



The following is a list of guidelines to guide you and your dogís actions when you are in and around a helicopter. Most are common sense. The main rule is: Have the greatest respect for the things that can do you the most injury. "Helicopters are 1000 moving parts, all trying to do you bodily harm."

There are drawings of helicopters that are 1000 years old. There were helicopter toys mass-produced 500 years ago, long before fixed wing toys. The first practical helicopter was made and tested in 1939 by Igor Sikorsky, a Russian emigrant.

According to National Transportation Safety Board, the Bell 206 Jet Ranger is the safest single engine aircraft flying today, including all fixed and rotary wing aircraft.  


Bell Textron 206 "Jet Ranger"


The main rotors of a helicopter, which provide the vertical lift component, spin around 500 rpm, with a tip speed around 700 feet/sec. They are elevated, so as not to decapitate you when the ship is on flat, level ground. It will make points with the pilot or crew chief if you approach any helicopter hunched over. That lets them know you are mindful of the hazards. Never approach a helicopter when the rotors are spinning slowly, almost stopping. The rotor tips are drooping the most due to gravity, and it would be easy to get hit by a rotor tip.

Always approach a helicopter from the front NEVER the back

Always have the pilot in sight. Never approach a helicopter from the rear. The tail rotor, which counter acts the torque of the main rotor, spins with a tip speed around 600 feet/sec, and is low to the ground. This is the one that kills people. Most external accidents or deaths occur by tail rotor versus head incidents. Even if the engine is off, always approach a helicopter from the front.  Some newer helicopters are "NOTAR's" (No Tail Rotor) where the exhaust gases from the jet engine are used to counteract torque as well as steer the helicopter.  Since this exhaust is several hundred degrees, you and your dog need to stay away just as if there were a tail rotor. 

LA Sheriff's MD-600N "NOTAR"

Although it can be very tempting, don't touch any part of the helicopter. There are many fragile parts that could be damaged. Crew Chiefs tend to be very protective of their birds and will shoot first and ask questions later. NEVER smoke around a helicopter or heliport. Helicopters and refueling equipment burn with a pretty green flame but it will be the last thing youíll ever see. If the heliport crew refuels the ship with the engine on, this is called "hot refueling" and tension is very high. Don't talk to the crew, and be on your best behavior. You could clap your hands and these guys would jump six feet.


Dogs react to the noise, wind, and vibrations. The lower the vibrations, the less they like it. Small (4 seater) helicopters have higher vibrations, and dogs will usually ride just as they do in a car. Larger helicopters (10+ seaters) have low vibrations, and many dogs get spooked approaching, as well as in flight. Be prepared to carry your dog to the ship in your arms. Carrying them may be the only way to insure total control. Make a second trip for your pack if necessary. Also keep in mind that the low frequency vibration might increase you and your dog's colon activity. Be sure to give your dog a "break" before any flights.

LA Sheriff's Sikorsky S-58T and H-3 "Air Rescue 5"


Anytime you are airlifted to a search area, plan on not flying back. Be pleasantly surprised if they do come back for you. Take food and extra clothing in the event that you will spend the night. It is not uncommon that weather, fuel, or other search priorities will prevent you from being picked up at the appointed time (if at all). Be prepared!

You may run into the situation where due to weight restrictions, they want to fly just you and your dog, and bring your pack "on the next trip".  Be cautious, as there may be other priorities or mechanical problems, and you're now 30 miles away at 8000 feet without your pack.  Try to discuss the situation with the search boss and crew chief.

Special items to carry for helicopters are: goggles, foam ear plugs, full leather boots, medium to heavy leather gloves, signal mirror, signal smoke, a good book (for long waits) and a sleeping bag. Good bribery stuff, like candy bars, or sodas, might insure a window seat, or a tour of Yosemite Falls on the way to your insertion point.


Most agencies demand full leather boots (no nylon parts) and all skin covered by Nomex. If you have leather and gortex boots, the CC will make the decision. They will give you a Nomex (fire retardant) jump suit to put on over your clothes. Zip it all the way up. There are Velcro closures for the legs and sleeves so secure them snuggly. Fold the collar up like James Dean to protect your neck. They probably will have nomex gloves to wear, if not, wear full leather gloves.

The reason for no skin showing, and full nomex and leather, is protection from fire. Studies have shown that even moderate protection from a flash fire will make a difference in skin bums. Fires are rare, but why take a chance?  If the agency doesn't give you Nomex, wear your leather gloves and button your shirt all the way up.  It is a good policy to wear only cotton clothes when flying.  Nylon or polyester will adhere to skin when heated and give terrible burns.

If you are given a flight helmet, there is a star shaped nut that holds the visor in the up position. Un-screw it and the visor will come down over your eyes. Visors are either clear or tinted.  Keep the nut loose when the visor is in the down position. In a crash situation, if the nut is tight, the helmet can break your neck if the visor catches on something. If the nut is loose, the visor will "give".


Know the weight of your pack, your dog, as well as yourself in your call-out attire. Your placement inside the ship is very weight sensitive. Heavier things will go closest to the rotor mast. YOU WILL BE ASKED HOW MUCH YOU, YOUR MUTT, AND YOUR PACK ALL WEIGH TOGETHER. BE PREPARED.

Make sure all your gear is secured. No loose strap ends, no loose leashes, scarves, no long antennae, etc... Do not wear a hat approaching or leaving a helicopter, take it off and stuff it in your shirt. Goggles or safety glasses are great to wear to protect your eyes from rotor wash. Foam shooters ear protectors are great to wear and are cheap. (about $1 per pair). Keep the earplugs in even if you wear a helmet or headset. Your ears are sensitive and can use all the protection you can give them. Earplugs may also help control vertigo effects.

Loading the LA Sheriff's S-58T 

When you want to approach the ship, wait for a nod, or a wave forward from the pilot or crew chief. Never approach without permission. If it looks like the pilot and/or crew chief are ignoring you, they aren't. They know exactly where you are but don't want to make contact until the right time. Some agencies have a policy that the rotors must stop turning before people get on board. Be very cautious of a helicopter with the engine off, but the strobes flashing. The engine is about to be started.

If the crew chief needs some information before you board, he might point to the microphone on his headset. He will push it out away from his lips and you talk into it. He will hear your voice, noise canceled, and so will the pilot(s). It is very effective.

Most ships we will ride in will have a crew chief (CC). While the ship is on the ground, the CC is in command. When they are airborne, the helicopter belongs to the pilot in command (PIC). In many situations, the helicopter will land, the crew chief will walk out to you, take your pack, and walk with you to the ship. Lift your dog in first, you get in next, and then the CC will place your pack inside next to you, or in an aft storage compartment. The CC might ride with you in the back, or in the front seat depending on the helicopter. When you land, wait, still seat belted in, until he opens the door and tells you to de-plane. You get out first, then your dog, then he will give you your pack. Re-buckle your seat belt when you get out of the seat.

Bell 204 "Huey" or "Iroquois"

If you have a choice, sit on the pilotís side when flying. There is a animal instinct in humans to "save thyself' and you want to sit on the side of the one who is flying. Engine outs, or autorotations are no big deal in a helicopter under most circumstances. I used to fly both fixed-wing and fling-wing and I would rather be in a helicopter in with a failed engine because I only need a small area to set down safely. If you do go down, the fuselage might roll on impact, that's OK, they are designed to do that. Wait until the blades stop turning and then bail yourself out and change your underwear.


During the flight, talk to your dog in a lower than normal voice (don't yell) with your mouth right in your dog's ear. Say re-assuring things using it's name often. Some agencies have a strap-in policy for dogs. The dog will sit in a seat sideways, and have a shoulder harness just like in your car. 

Airsickness associated with helicopters is very common, and is the same motion sickness as if you were out in a boat. It is due to the inner ear, and eating or not eating will have little difference. If you are unlucky enough to be in a helicopter when they are orbiting around a point for an extended time, know where the vomit bags are. If you have to use one, it's no big thing, you are not the first. It will help to look out to the horizon or to pick a point on the ground to fix on. Random gazes from your eyes will only make matters worse. If you are prone to motion sickness, Scopolamine transdermal patches work very well. They are prescription only, and last 3-4 days per patch. If you are only out for a day trip, use 1/2 a patch. Drink lots of water as they can really dry you out.

The CC may give you ear muffs to lessen the cabin noise. Listen only headsets, intercom headsets, or flight helmets may be given to you also. Put them on. If it has a mike, put it right in contact with your upper lip, and talk in a normal voice, or a softer and lower tone. Headsets and helmets have a coiled cord with an external trigger to actuate the intercom. Look at the control, usually a small box on the coiled cord, and read which direction to actuate intercom (usually labeled ICS), and which direction to actuate radio (labeled XMIT). Only use the radio if instructed to do so. If there is no trigger switch, then it is a voice operated (VOX) intercom. Anything you say will go over the ship intercom. Be sure to move the mic away from your mouth before swearing at your dog.


Author trying to convince a bloodhound to exit the ship

Once you have landed, the CC might walk away with you, or point to the direction he wants you to go. If you are on a hill, always walk down hill, so you don't walk up into the main rotors. Again, never walk towards the rear of the ship, always the front. When you are at a safe distance, get on your knees with your back to the ship and shield your dogs eyes. When the pilot starts tilting the rotors to create lift, a tremendous amount of debris can blow up from the ground, called rotor wash.

Enter & Exit downslope when on a hill


If you are on the hill and need helicopter extraction for the victim, or yourself, there are a few things to radio to the pilot . Your exact location, elevation, how many to be picked up, and total weight of people, dogs, and packs. If you are able, find a good spot for a landing zone (LZ) and go to it. If there aren't any, the victim might have to be winched out. Advise the approximate wind speed and direction (tell if itís gusty too), air temperature, height and type of obstacles near LZ. If you are in the snow, keep in mind that the rotor wash will drop the air temperature significantly (wind chill factor). Keep the victim bundled up.

If the helicopter pilot wants you to give your location over the radio when he is coming for you, tell him in clock references in his perspective. (i.e. "I am at your 2 o'clock position about three miles. I am flashing you with my signal mirror now...")

Another good habit to get into is telling the helicopter what frequency you are on, only on your initial call. They usually have 4 or 5 frequencies dialed in, and it will keep them from guessing. (i.e. "CHP Air 40, this is dog team two on 155.16, mountain rescue frequency.")

As the airship circles for a landing (they do this to look for hazards at the LZ), throw a handful of dirt in the air to see the wind direction. Put your back to the wind and hold your arms outstretched as if you were sleep walking. As the helicopter comes in, drop to one knee and then show distance from his skids to the ground with your hands in a vertical motion. (i.e. when he is 3 feet off the ground, hold your left hand about waist level and keep it there. Move your right hand, from just above your head, downward showing his distance from the ground.)


If you have a smoke canister, wait until the helicopter is very near (they don't last long) and pull the chain to start the flow of smoke. Throw the canister in the center of the area you want them to set down. With smoke, just throw it and stand back, donít do the "set-down dance". The pilot will have excellent visual references provided by the smoke. If you have two canisters, tell the pilot on the radio; he may want you to pop one to identify your location. Another excellent localization tool is the signal mirror. Be sure to practice at home so you don't fumble while the ship is coming your way. If there is high fire danger and smoke canisters are too dangerous, a six-foot length of toilet paper held above your head will work pretty well.


Helitac training with your dog doesn't necessarily need a helicopter.  As a matter of fact, it would be a good idea NOT to start Helitac training with a helicopter.  There are many things you can do to train and prepare before your first helicopter flight.

How is your dog around loud noises?  Heavy machinery?  Exhaust fumes?  Being lifted by you or someone else onto a 4-5 foot platform?  Being placed on metal surfaces?  Riding on a seat strapped in?  

How are you with all those things?  Remember that how you act will directly effect your dogs behavior.  If you are quite anxious, your dog WILL feel it and be anxious too.

"Riding" in a helicopter is pretty much like riding in a car.  "Getting your dog in" the helicopter may be the hard part.  If the rotors are turning, the wind is blowing, and there are exhaust fumes, your dog may decide that he'd rather bite than fly...

You can take your dog to an airport and get them used to planes, loud noises and jet fuel exhaust.  This is invaluable.  Even just walking around outside the fence in a public area will help.  On a real search, if your dog freaks out with the helicopter ride in, they will not be working 100% when you start searching for the victim, and could take a long time to get back their concentration.  If your dog is really stressed out getting into the airship, they may even stress-pee or stress-poop in the helicopter.  Boy, won't you be popular...

Helitac training with the LA Sheriff's H-3 Sikorsky "Sea King"

The larger the helicopter, the more freaky your pooch will get.  The LA Sheriff's new H-3 Sea Stallions are huge helicopters and have an unbelievable amount of rotor wash and noise.  The burning exhaust is HOT and you'll think the smell of burning kerosene is going to singe your nose hairs.  The fuselage deck is a metal platform about 4Ĺ feet up in the air.  Even well seasoned search dogs get spooked getting into this bird.

Make sure your dog doesn't mind being lifted and being put up on a platform.  Have another person the dog doesn't know do it occasionally.  Even people that are sure their dogs won't bite under stress should carry an ace bandage or Kling bandage wrap just-in-case.  A quick couple of wraps around the muzzle will insure safety if you have to load into a Sea King, Chinook, or Huey.

You can get your pooch used to riding in a seat strapped in, this by having him/her sit in the car front seat while you are driving.  Have him face towards you in a sitting position and put the normal seat belt on him.  Make him/her ride that way for 5 minutes, then the next day for 10.  Work your way up to 30-45 minutes, and then "refresh" your dogs memory a few times a year.  The first time you do this, it's best to have someone else drive and you and your dog sit in the back seat.  If your dog is comfortable and compliant, try it when you're driving.  Don't let it distract you and cause and accident however.

The first time your dog is around a helicopter with the rotors turning, keep them near the ship for a few minutes if you can, and get them acclimated to the wind from the rotor wash.  The wind and debris kicked up by the rotors is worse as you approach the helicopter, and lessens dramatically when you get under the turning rotors.  You may notice that seasoned dogs really pull the leash to get to under the rotors as they remember that is more calm there.


Getting several dogs used to the noise and rotor wash

Depending on how your pre-training goes, think about refreshing them the day before you know you have a helitac training.  Any advance planning and prep you can make in advance will help insure a smoother time around helicopters.


Helicopters are unbeatable transportation for the work we do.  They are very safe and reliable, but command great respect.  With a little preparation and some reasonable thinking and common sense, you and your canine partner will be safely and effectively carried to your desired location.

Keep the note page below in your call-out pack and review it when you know you are going to be deployed by helicopter.  It will help refresh your memory on the necessities.

Have fun and be safe...


Click Here for and OUTSTANDING description of Helicopter Pilots!

 * For information purposes only, not to be construed as absolute.
Author assumes no responsibility for any injuries or damage resulting form any actions associated with following, or not following the above guidelines. 

Printing of this material to use for educational purposes is granted, as long as you are not getting paid for your presentation.  If payment is involved, contact author for written permission.   Permission to *link* to this website is fully granted. Copying and posting of any materials on *your* website IS NOT granted.  


(Click to open a printable version 
of notes to keep in your pack)


Know total weight of you (with uniform & boots on), your dog, and your pack

            (i.e. me: 190 + pooch: 100 + pack: 65 = TOTAL: 355 lbs).

Give dog a "break".

Prepare not to be flown back.

Secure all straps, scarves, sierra cups, etc...

Put goggles on to protect eyes from rotor wash.

Put in earplugs if you have them.

Be prepared to pick up dog and carry to helicopter.

Stay away from tail section of helicopter. If you have to walk around it, give it a very wide birth (30-40 feet).

Wait for nod or forward wave from pilot or crew chief before approaching. Always have the pilot in sight.

Walk hunched over to and from aircraft.

When flying, talk on intercom (marked ICS) in softer and lower tone of voice than normal.

Re-assure your dog by talking softly in his/her car.

If you are on the intercom system and can hear the pilot and crew talking; If it gets quiet, feel free to ask brief questions. Everyone loves to talk about what they do.

For "on the hill extraction" radio exact location, elevation, how many to go, total weight, wind, direction, air temp, type of obstacles and height.

Remember: Helicopters don't fly, they beat the air into submission.

Have fun and enjoy yourself. There is no greater thrill.             


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