Laura Monclús is one of the few female helicopter pilots and works from SENASA's Aeronautical Safety Directorate as a helicopter operations inspector. In addition, she is part of the advisory working group for the development of the new decree that will replace RD 750/2014, which currently regulates the operation of helicopters in the field of firefighting, search and rescue. In this interview, Laura Monclús explains the peculiarities of the helicopter sector and the role of SENASA in aerial inspection of this field.
What is SENASA`s main role in the field of helicopters and aeronautical safety?
SENASA is true reference, very relevant in the aeronautical sector in general, because it covers many areas, not only that of helicopters. For all its knowledge, SENASA is a key actor in the inspection and in the development of standards. It should be taken into account that the professional team provided by SENASA come directly from the operator, have direct experience in helicopter operations. That is our main value, we are pilots who have worked in the operators, engineers who know first-hand the work in the operator, the problems that can arise, where to improve, or where the operation is more advanced.
SENASA provides all that knowledge that must be preserved and continue to promote. An inspection is pointless if you don't really know what is going on. In order to conduct inspections, you need to know the operation first hand. We have professional pilots and aeronautical engineers capable of applying the standard in a much more realistic way, not just the theoretical part. That is our main contribution.
The knowledge of the operation allows us to propose alternatives and solutions for the future, identifying problems or market prospects in such a way that we can adapt and anticipate scenarios, helping to strengthen the sector and make it grow safely.
SENASA also has an important area of training services in the aeronautical sector in general, and in particular in helicopters, both in terms of regulations and safety, which is also subject to inspection.
How has the helicopter industry evolved?
It must be taken into account that, on the one hand, there is commercial transport aviation, mainly operated by large aircraft, most of them airplanes, targeting to passengers and goods’ transport, where the regulations are highly developed and advanced. The helicopter sector, on the other hand, is a smaller activity, the operations are not as large when it comes to transporting people. What has happened is that it has frequently been in tow of standards and procedures developed for airplanes, so its evolution has been somewhat less orderly and slower, as they are very particular operations, although operations with helicopters are essential for the society. That is its main value. These are usually medical emergency services, patient transfer, search and rescue both on land and at sea, or firefighting services. It is less visible than aircraft activity, but helicopter operations are essential. In addition, there are a series of aeronautical work, such as loading or transporting certain goods, which are done by helicopter because there is no other more suitable means with which they can be carried out.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the helicopter sector has not ceased its activity, precisely because it is an essential sector. It has been active, exactly the same as before the pandemic. The fires have continued to exist, as have medical emergencies, the needs continued to be there. Inspection, training, professionals, everything continued its activity and also with an adaptation to the requirements demanded by the health protocols due to the pandemic, without undermining the safety criteria and quality standards.
How does safety look like in the helicopter industry?
The helicopter in itself is not dangerous, the risks are introduced by the operation, because, in many cases, it works at low speed and height. Everyone in aviation knows that speed and height mean safety. In our case, we usually work with little margin. That is why it is important to have an operation with a good procedure, well regulated, that is close to reality and protects it but that allows the operation, because we are talking about essential services.
How has helicopter safety and procedures developed?
The current regulations in the field of helicopters began to be applied in 2012 with the AIROPS and in 2015 with RD 750/2014 on fire, search and rescue. Previously, there were instructions emerging in different areas, but unconnected with each other, a very dispersed regulation for very specific issues, but without rules focused on what the operation is.
In the last ten years there has been a huge change in terms of standardization, which is what we are looking for. Before, each operator worked in his own way, each pilot worked with the resources available. The evolution, fortunately, has been very good and positive, but we must continue working. The aircraft regulations have been taken as a reference and we must go beyond the mere transposition of them to helicopter operations, since they are completely different operations. From SENASA we are contributing to the development of a new regulation. In the development of the new decree, many of our pilots are collaborating with the working groups, with regulators, with operators, COPAC, AESA and with EASA. With this experience and knowledge, improvements are proposed to be able to analyze, adapt and apply European regulations and the more specific regulations, on fires or search and rescue, for example, making it as realistic and accessible as possible together.
Helicopters vs drones, how do both media coexist in the air environment?
Helicopters and drones will each have their own well-defined space, and we will also take advantage of it. There are operations that are currently being conducted by helicopter that are not cost efficient and could be done perfectly with drones. Each one will have their place and will fulfill their role. In addition to being more efficient, we will complement each other. As an example, in searches or in observation it can be much cheaper or you can have much more means using drones.
As the drone activity is so new, we have to see how it adapts. You have to separate very well the airspace of one and the other. There will come a time when we will know perfectly where each one is, the work for each medium will be well defined and we will work many times in common. We must learn to complement each other and share that space and how we are going to communicate. In the field of UAS, SENASA has extensive experience and knowledge in training and consulting from which even other sectors can benefit.
You are also director of Expansion in Ellas Vuelan Alto (EVA), an association dedicated to make visible the presence of women in the aeronautical sector, and one of which SENASA is an associate entity. Based in your experience, tell us about female representation in the helicopter sector and what the equality challenges are in this field.
In Spain, as in other countries, the female presence in the helicopter sector is very low, representing only 2-2.5%, around 32-35 female helicopter pilots, although there is a greater presence of female aircraft pilots.
The aeronautical sector in general is very powerful, with many possibilities and future, there is much to do, improve and expand. Aeronautics, and the aerospace industry as well, has a very interesting future for women. It is a very attractive sector and it seems essential to share the experience of the women who are already in this sector, both at the engineering and pilot level, to make visible our effort and how we enjoy our profession so that it serves as an inspiration to other women so that consider it as a career opportunity.
It is a tough race for everyone, for both men and women. You have to work and keep training continuously because it is a sector that evolves quickly, with languages, qualifications, computer programs, new systems.
The origin of the EVA association came from the need to give visibility and bring the role of women in the aeronautical sector closer to society. Specifically, I collaborate with a working group in Andalusia, where the aeronautical sector is strategic. We have a group of women highly involved in the sector in various awareness-raising projects, not only in aeronautical aspects, but also in aerospace.
What will be the main challenges for the helicopter industry?
Helicopters will continue to be part of our lives, without any doubt, because they fulfill functions that are very difficult to replace by other means. One of the main challenges will be the integration and compatibility of the work of drones and helicopters in the same airspace. On the other hand, helicopters are currently used for aerial work, but they are increasingly being used for other mobility services, such as aerotaxis in large cities, something that will be more common in the near future. We will need then to work on the needs to be covered, security and the use of airspace. Other activity would be firefighting with helicopters at night, for example, when it is more dangerous and requires a good analysis of the operation.
One of the biggest challenges to face is that of sustainability. We know that manufacturers are working hard to improve standards and solutions, but there is still a lot to do. From SENASA we are helping to implement various measures to achieve the objectives of reducing emissions and decarbonization of the aeronautical sector, participating in national and international innovation and environmental sustainability projects.
Apart from this, the helicopter activity means a lot of contribution in terms of surveillance, waste control and environmental conservation, which continue to be key.
Finally, given the seasonal nature of most of the helicopter operations, life balance in this sector is also a great challenge, something that affects all pilots, not just women. Many of the services are only performed in summer time, such as firefighting. Work schedules are not usually known in advance to be able to organize the private and family life with enough time. There is a lot way to walk with this regard, and both professionals and companies are all very aware. As far as the professionals are happy, the balance of their personal and working life is easier, especially with a job that appeal all so much, obviously they will be more motivated and involved. We all want to have experts who excel in their job, and that requires continuity, education and training.