How helicopters provided safety in the challenging desert terrain
The Airbus H125 - which helped ensure safety and reliability during the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia - is a multi-task helicopter that can easily be reconfigured for various missions
The Helicopter Company (THC) was enlisted to provide emergency medical services, VIP transport and aerial work at this year's Dakar Rally in January, held in Saudi Arabia. The team at THC used their fleet of Airbus-built H125s to ensure safety and reliability in the desert terrain.
The Dakar Rally is not for the feeble hearted. A gruelling two-week race, the rally is known for its long circuit - covering some several thousand kilometres in total - and through off-road conditions that put each driver's skill to the test. The 2021 race circled almost the entirety of Saudi Arabia, through deserts and sand dunes, skimming the shores of the Red Sea and finishing in Jeddah.
"Our fleet of H125s was selected because of its reliability. The H125 is a multi-task helicopter that can easily be reconfigured for various missions, therefore, is well suited for major sport events such as Dakar to cover the event's needs from aerial work to emergency medical services (EMS) and private charters," said Arnaud Martinez, the CEO of THC.
A race against the clock
"This year's race was very close. The top competitors were not far from each other - two-to-three minutes apart - so it was going very fast," said Gilles Plaisance, Director of Flight Operations at THC. "If one of the competitors was injured during the race, it was our job to get them to the hospital as fast as possible. It was a race against time for us."
A team of four H125s, an ambulance and fixed-wing aircraft were at the ready throughout the race. THC was charged with the task of airlifting injured drivers from difficult-to-access terrain.
An H125 rotorcraft operated by The Helicopter Company (THC) is shown in flight at the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.
H125 rotorcraft operated by The Helicopter Company (THC) provided emergency medical services, VIP transport and aerial work at the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.
The helicopters followed the race closely; flying 100 km every several hours to stay near the head of the race. In the event of an accident, the team was immediately contacted, allowing them to arrive on the scene within minutes. THC's fleet was equipped with the necessary tools to extract the driver from the vehicle if needed, while the medical team on board provided emergency care. The patient was then transported to the nearest primary medical field where they could be flown via fixed-wing aircraft to the nearest hospital.
"It was very organised, and the crews were highly-experienced in air medical services," said Plaisance, whose team carried out a total of 28 EMS missions during the rally.
VIP and aerial work
Alongside EMS operations, THC was responsible for VIP transportation: an H130 and H125 were light enough to land in any of the sandy dunes near the race circuit, allowing viewers to catch a glimpse of the heart of the action. When an accident occurred in an isolated area, once the driver was evacuated, it was a THC helicopter that airlifted the leftover vehicle back to the camp, clearing the path for other drivers.
Harsh desert environment
80% of the surface in Saudi Arabia is covered in sand, which causes particular challenges to aircraft. "You need a really strong helicopter to survive in desert conditions. The sand creates a difficult environment for the blades, the engine," said Plaisance. "It has to be powerful, but also light enough to land on the soft dunes. With the H125, we could land anywhere."
"You need a really strong helicopter to survive in desert conditionsÖWith the H125, we could land anywhere." Gilles Plaisance, Director of Flight Operations at THC
Another challenge to flying in desert conditions is understanding how high you are. "It's like flying over snow - it's very uniform and is hard to tell if you are high or low in altitude, which can cause a pilot to become disoriented," said Plaisance. "All of our Airbus-built helicopters were equipped with radar-altitude devices. It's incredibly helpful in sandy environments."
A group photo of the H125s and H130s operated by The Helicopter Company at the 2021 Dakar Rally.
The Helicopter Company (THC) utilised Airbus-produced H125s and H130s during the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.
Coordination in the air
With several aircraft flying during the race, from VIP transportation, HEMS aircraft, to near-to-the-ground filming crews, coordination in the air was paramount. The Helicopter Company's Airbus-built helicopters were equipped with Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS). "Each pilot could see on their instrument panel in real-time where all of the other aircraft in the area were. It was a big improvement for safety, and works really well on the H125," said Plaisance.