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Home > Blog > The Role Of Light Aircraft In Search And Rescue Operations

The Role of Light Aircraft in Search and Rescue Operations

Posted 09 May 2024

Search and Rescue Operations

In this guide, we will discuss the mechanics of these specialised light aircraft and how they are used for search and rescue operations.

Light aircraft has enabled humanity to not just navigate the skies for transport and leisure purposes but to also aid in important causes like search and rescue, and even emergency health services.

However, the type of aircraft used for these “missions” is different than the aircraft that you usually associate with light aircraft. While light aircraft are largely bifurcated into flex and fixed-wing aircraft, there is another type of light aircraft that has capabilities that are highly specific to humanitarian causes: helicopters.

Helicopters are designed to vertically take off and can be navigated on any axis thanks to their unique rotor system and design. In this guide, we will discuss the mechanics of these specialised light aircraft and how they are used for search and rescue operations.


Light aircraft have been a gift to humanity and have been in service since the 1900s. After the first manned flight by the Wright brothers in December of 1903, engineers and aviation enthusiasts rejoiced around the world and celebrated the design of the flex-wing light aircraft.

Truth be told, it was widely accepted that the flex-wing design would be the go-to aircraft layout for the foreseeable future – that is until the fixed-wing aircraft came into service.

What’s fascinating about the fixed-wing design is that it came just 2 years after the introduction of the flex-wing. The Wright Flyer III was introduced in 1905 and is highly regarded as the first-ever “true” fixed-wing design.

Flex wings and fixed-wing aircraft were used for low-level rescue and search operations and were useful in transporting aid or other cargo necessary to save lives.

However, these aircraft had limitations. The biggest one was that they needed specific infrastructure to land and take off and couldn’t be viably used for emergency health services.

The thing is, light aircraft are excellent for navigating the sky since they can reach great speeds and can fly in a vector with precise manoeuvrability. However, engineers believed that another design on the horizon could achieve much more.

This design came in the form of a helicopter!

After World War I, the use of aviation was solidified and thanks to military interest and funding, the technology was further pushed to bring in newer and better designs. It was because of this interest, and a lot of tweaking and experimentation that the helicopter design was born.

The VS-300 is credited as being the first helicopter design. The aircraft took flight on September 14, 1939, piloted by Igor Sikorsky, and interestingly, the VS-300 was the first helicopter to have a single main rotor and tail rotor design.

Since then, we have seen a lot of improvements in helicopter designs and of course, a lot of great applications for it as well!

Here are some reasons why helicopters are excellent light aircraft:

Precise Manoeuvrability

Helicopters are highly versatile machines. These aircraft work by using multiple controls to stabilise the aircraft in various positions which allows it to be precisely navigated according to the pilot's input.

This stabilisation is how helicopters can fly vertically and horizontally along all axes and maintain position even in various wind conditions. In fact, helicopters can also maintain their position precisely which makes them one of the most versatile and precise aerial vehicles in the world.

In the context of search and rescue missions, these aircraft provide tremendous help since they can carry cargo to places that aren’t accessible by regular aircraft. Furthermore, these aircraft can also take passengers and even have medical equipment fitted inside the cabin which makes them an excellent tool for health services in remote areas.

Vertical Take-off/Landing

As you can imagine, helicopters can take off from virtually anywhere. This means that they only need a stable surface to land and take off without needing to taxi across a runway.

This feature is immensely useful in the context of search and rescue operations since these vehicles can hover or land near precarious cliffs, buildings, or any location that requires precise movement.

Multiple Applications

The applications for helicopters are limitless. From wildlife monitoring to surveys, search and rescue, emergency services, and much more.

These light aircraft can not only speed up these operations but can also be useful in other applications like aerial tours, sightseeing, geological surveys, and more.


Here are how light aircraft can be used in various search and rescue scenarios:



Air Ambulance

Piloting light aircraft for health services has got to be the best use of aviation in the modern world. Not only has aviation brought the world closer but it has also opened avenues for humanitarian work and emergency services.

Take air ambulances as an example. Helicopters are widely used as air ambulances to help reach people in remote or hard-to-access areas. For example, people stuck in snowstorms, oil rigs, and even moving ships can be reached with the help of helicopters.

This means that if someone requires medical help but is away from a hospital, they can be treated or the very least stabilised in a specialised air ambulance until they reach the hospital.

Rescue Operations

Before light aircraft, particularly helicopters, brave men and women used to risk their lives trying to reach people in emergencies.

Wildfires are an excellent example because they usually require quick action and evacuation. Furthermore, without helicopters, these operations can be nearly impossible on foot even if they have tools to combat the fire.

With helicopters, people can be rescued without the aircraft even having to land on the ground. These aircraft are equipped with ladders and in some cases, platforms that can be lowered to the ground instead.

This not only increases the chances of success for rescue operations but helps save lives efficiently. According to a statistic by the Sikorsky Archives, helicopters have saved more than a million lives in the last 50 years!


Light aircraft are also widely used for various other operations such as:

Search Operations

Aerial search operations are useful because they have a high probability of success and can cover a large area with ease. With the help of these light aircraft, authorities have been able to find people in remote areas, locate the bodies of the deceased, and even unearth evidence that can help find missing people.

As mentioned above, helicopters can be equipped with various instruments that can further help search and rescue attempts. For example, you can commonly find a flood light, a speaker system, and even a radar system that can detect people or alert them of danger.

In fact, helicopters are the pride of aerial military operations because they can reach otherwise inaccessible territory and find missing or stranded people.

Surveys and Fire Control

Light aircraft are usually the go-to for scientists who want to study the environment. Wildlife surveys are a classic example because they require a vehicle that can keep track of animal populations without disturbing their natural habitat.

Of course, some surveys can be particularly dangerous on foot, which is why conservationists use light aircraft to take quick surveys without even stepping foot in marked territories. These surveys can be conducted in both traditional light aircraft and helicopters!

Pilots can also use light aircraft to investigate soil erosion, pollution levels, and even deforestation. This data is invaluable to scientists and can even help them track and possibly figure out corrective strategies.

For example, in the UK, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds regularly employ the use of light aircraft to carefully monitor bird populations in an area.

Even better, light aircraft also play a role in fire control.

Forest fires are devastating and controlling them at the earliest is a crucial step. This is why light aircraft are used by various emergency agencies to survey high-risk areas for fire alerts.

If a light aircraft pilot notices signs of fire, they can immediately notify the relevant authorities who can then take corrective measures or initiate rescue operations before precious lives are lost.

Light aircraft are equally indispensable in pinpointing the exact location of fires which can help save time and resources for emergency personnel.


Since we have highlighted helicopters as the main vehicle behind several search and rescue operations, let’s talk about how these aircraft work.

The controls and components of a helicopter are very different from regular-winged light aircraft.

These aircraft operate using three control components:

  • Pedals
  • Collective
  • Cyclic


The pedals of the helicopter are responsible for yawing (turning). Two separate pedals control the rotor blades and provide a lateral force that counteracts the torque provided by the main rotor at the top of the helicopter.

Pressing the left pedal down will cause the helicopter to turn or rotate towards the left side while the right pedal also known as the power pedal will increase lift and cause the helicopter to yaw to the right side.


The collective is a lever located on the left side of the pilot.

The collective is responsible for changing the angle of attack of the rotor blade. If the collective is pulled up, the angle of attack increases which causes more lift and allows the aircraft to hover or climb.

Inversely, pulling the lever down decreases the angle of attack and allows the aircraft to lower down. The collective works in tandem with the pedals and cyclic to provide precise take-off and landing.


The cyclic is responsible for the direction of the aircraft. It is in the middle of the cockpit between the legs of the pilot and can be moved in four directions: forward, backward, left, and right.

Moving the cyclic forward will cause the helicopter to tilt forward and move ahead while moving it left or right will cause it to strafe in either direction. When the cyclic is neutral, the helicopter levels out and hovers in a still position.

However, flying helicopters is very different and requires quite a lot of specialised training.

Even for the helicopter to hover, the pilot needs to control all three controls, pedals, cyclic, and collective to maintain stability. This is due to wind speed and other factors that can cause an imbalance in the control of the helicopter. While most modern helicopters can auto-stabilise, many designs need to be occasionally manually controlled.


Light aircraft training is common and relatively accessible around the UK. Helicopter training, on the other hand, requires speciality and a different set of skills.

This is why these aircraft are seldom found in small-scale commercial flight schools that only focus on flight training on flex or fixed-wing aircraft.

Furthermore, the high costs associated with owning a fleet of helicopters and other infrastructure expenses are one of the biggest reasons why many flight schools don’t offer a dedicated flight programme for PPL-H or CPL-H candidates.

The good news is that full-fledged flight schools provide not only in-depth and quality training but also have a range of facilities and highly experienced faculty to help you learn how to not just fly but also master helicopters for various causes, like search, rescue, and emergency operations.

Sherburn Aero Club understands the demand and importance of helicopters in aviation which is why it has a separate wing dedicated to helicopter training. This training is provided by veteran pilots.

Hields Aviation, which is based in Sherburn, offers not just helicopter pilot training but also charter brokerage and experienced flights as well!

Hields Aviation offers a range of flight training facilities that includes a full-fledged helicopter simulator for serious training and recreational flying as well. With a fleet of highly-maintained helicopters, Sherburn is the best place to start for not just newcomers but every type of aviation enthusiast.


Whether it's a helicopter or winged aircraft training, Sherburn Aero Club is the best place for all your aviation needs.

With a large fleet of new aircraft and an airfield refurbishment with new runways, hangars, and an extended clubhouse, Sherburn caters to brand-new flyers who have just started their journey to the skies, as well as seasoned flyers who have been operating aircraft for decades.

For those who wish to experience the thrill of a flight for fun or to help fuel their aviation dreams, Sherburn offers experience flights for the newbie, as well as the veteran.  If you don’t know where to start, then you need a flight school like Sherburn to guide you through the entire process of any type of flight programme.

With us, you can begin your aviation career or even take to the skies as a hobby. Sherburn’s flight training school offers private and commercial licences, along with pilot medicals to ensure a smooth journey going forward.

In addition to that, if you are looking for a hangarage for your own aircraft, need servicing or repairs, want to buy a new aircraft or aviation equipment, or are just looking to enjoy and watch the aircraft, Sherburn Aero Club is the place to be.

Sherburn Aero Club, which has been operational since 1964, is the ideal place for most of your training and flying needs. It is one of the largest flying clubs in the North of England and also one of the largest in the country.

Call us on 01977 682 674​​​, email us at flightdesk@sherburnaeroclub.com, or message us via our online contact form for more information on learning how to fly helicopters or any type of aircraft!

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash



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