Night vision risk for rescue pilots

Need for public awareness

GRANT BRYANT
Last updated 13:44 05/06/2014
shaun clark
GRANT BRYANT/ Fairfax NZ
SIGHT HAZARD: Helicopter rescue pilot Shaun Clark wears the super-sensitive night vision goggles which can be disabled by even a brief flash of light, leaving the pilot temporarily blinded. Clark is warning of the dangers of people even briefly flashing lights at night-flying helicopters, which in the Southern region are guaranteed sure to be on emergency rescue missions or critical medivac flights.

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Southern night flying rescue helicopter heroes are calling for greater public awareness of the night vision technology that enables them to save lives in pitch darkness, after two recent "flashing" episodes.

A medical evacuation flight returning from Dunedin Hospital and piloted by Shaun Clark was briefly flashed with a powerful spotlight early last week.

The incident happened about 11pm in an area between Alexandra and Bannockburn.

Even very brief exposure to light can "blow out" the extremely sensitive night vision system in the goggles pilots must use for night flying.

Heliworks general manager Richard Mills said he doubted the flashing episode was malicious, but it did raise the need for the general public to be aware of actions when they heard or saw helicopters flying at night.

"These guys were probably spotlighting for rabbits or possums, heard the chopper, and might have just briefly flashed their light up to see if they could see it," he said.

"But night vision goggles are so sensitive that we were recently able to use them to spot a lost hunter from two kilometres away by getting him to hold up his phone and light up the screen - and that was through thick bush.

"Having such sensitive gear for locating people in emergencies is great, but people need to be aware that it is really dangerous to shine a light at the same technology that could save their lives if they get into trouble."

Clark said pilots could find themselves in real trouble in such circumstances.

"Night vision goggles are designed to automatically dim in bright high light conditions, but when faced with with intense light such as from a spotlight, they will shut down to protect themselves from damage, leaving the pilot blind.

"One sweep of a spotlight can destroy a pilot's night vision. This can quickly lead to disorientation and a very dangerous situation in the air."

Pilot's flying at night had ample challenges with the mountainous terrain, changeable weather and pressure of rescuing people as it was, and what might seem like a relatively harmless action, had the potential to cause disaster for pilots, rescue crews and those they were trying to rescue, Clark said.

Queenstown's senior sergeant John Fookes said anyone flashing a helicopter or plane was committing a serious offence, and wanted to underline the fact that any helicopter flying at night in the Southern region would be on an emergency medivac or search and rescue mission.

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