Tips for Securing a Helicopter Landing Zone


In emergency patient transport by helicopter, rapid response and decisive action are crucial in seamlessly moving patients from one place to another with helicopter transport. While patient transport flights can cover great distances in less time than ground transport, one of the most important aspects of a successful mission is creating a secure landing zone for our pilots to have enough space to land safely, and load or unload patients and staff. Our team at Air Methods has compiled a list of the top tips for choosing and setting up an unimproved landing zone, to creating alternate set-ups, using hand signals, and approaching a helicopter safely. 

Selecting a Landing Zone

Our helicopter pilots face the challenge of finding a suitable landing zone for their aircraft, and quickly when transporting emergent patients. Several factors come into play as pilots try to locate the best possible spot to land safely — location, accessibility, and safety are all critical. 

Safety is the top priority for a pilot who needs to assess the terrain and surrounding obstacles to ensure the landing zone can accommodate the aircraft and allow for a safe landing and takeoff.  Wires, cranes, and antennas are a hazard and difficult for pilots to see when landing. Additional hazards can include unsecured items within the landing zone area, or even obstacles not visible to the pilot such as natural or manmade items hidden in tall grass. This includes small items such as plastic bags.

Tip: Coordinate with ground and air by using radio frequencies and key phrases with critical information to enable a safe landing and takeoff. 

Another important priority to consider is accessibility. The landing zone needs to be easily accessible for medical personnel or other emergency responders who attend to patients or unload equipment. Terrain can play a significant role in this, as pilots may need to navigate steep or uneven slopes to reach the landing site. 

Factors to consider when selecting a landing zone: 

  • Ground must be firm and flat with no more than a 5-degree slope. 
  • Area must be clear of boulders, logs, livestock, and other obstacles. 
  • Tall grass needs to be pressed for a flat and clear landing. 
  • If landing on a highway, the helicopter should be a safe distance from the accident with minimum 100 foot surrounding clearance for daytime and 150 foot surrounding clearance for nighttime. 
  • Headlights and emergency vehicle flashing/rotating lights should be minimized at nighttime to minimize impact on night vision devices worn by the pilot.
  • Vehicle traffic must not be able to pass until the area is clear.  

Setting up a Landing Zone 

Preparing a landing zone requires effective communication with other emergency personnel and thorough coordination of resources. You should have a cleared, visible, and well-lit landing zone. 

The first step is to clearly mark the landing zone on the perimeters with visible or  illuminated cones, which is either amber or red, at each corner. The pilot surveys the area upon arrival and will make the final decision on landing and how to maneuver and land the helicopter within the zone. 

While some pilots prefer not to have a ground guide, if one is utilized, they should stand at least 25-50 feet outside the landing zone and wear protective gear, including ear and eye protection and properly secured helmets, if available. The presence and location of a ground guide must be communicated to the pilot during initial radio communications.

Factors for ground guides to consider on final approach: 

  • Be aware of approaching vehicles or pedestrians, particularly to the rear.
  • Communicate to the pilot on landing zone readiness, obstacles, wind direction, and surface type. 
  • Hazardous obstacles include wires, poles, and towers.
  • When the helicopter is on final approach maintain radio and eye contact. 

Alternate Landing Zone Set Ups

When a routine landing zone preparation is not feasible, you can create an alternate method to maintain safety. If cones or perimeter illumination devices are not available at night, an “X” pattern made by shining headlights or floodlights from outside the downwind side of the landing zone can provide an effective way to guide the aircraft in. However, it’s crucial to never shine direct light into the face of the pilot which can be dangerous.

Additional Safeguards for Safe Emergency Medical Landings

To ensure a safe landing, there are additional measures pilots and ground crew can put into place, allowing medical teams to attend to patients without added danger. 

When approved first responder personnel are present, the pilot can request guards at the tail rotor but at a safe distance to keep people away from the dangerous tail rotor section. Before the aircraft departs, it’s necessary for all personnel to stand outside the landing zone to allow the helicopter to maneuver.

Tip: For safety, keep crowds, news media, and nonessential personnel at minimum 150 feet from the helicopter at all times. 

Personnel allowed in the landing zone perimeter, should not wear loose clothing including hats which could fly away. If carrying equipment or a patient, all blankets and straps must be secure, and stretchers must be carefully controlled around the helicopter.


When every second counts, clear communication is crucial for ground crew to guide emergency helicopter pilots. Communication should be established prior to arrival and through to departure. Any hazard warnings should be pointed out during the operation.

Designate one person to communicate to the pilot by two-way radio who will relay potential obstructions, hazards, and wind info to the pilot. This person will also describe positions using compass directions: “Fire truck is west of the landing zone,” or the clock method: “Fire truck is at your 11 o’clock position” with the 12 o’clock position reference using the nose of the aircraft.

Directive phrases:

“Go around” — A standard aviation phrase, “go around” is used when a hazard is identified during approach; the pilot will add power, pull up and go around.

“Stop, Stop, Stop” — When a pilot hears these words he is being warned of immediate danger and should hold position.

If able, provide descriptive information in the context of a directive phrase: “Go around, object in the landing zone.”

Hand signals:

The ground guide is responsible for providing hand signals to the pilot, using either their arms and hands during the day, and flashlights at night. These signals are used both upon arrival and departure, ensuring that every flight is communicated successfully. The pilot has the final say on whether to continue, regardless of ground guidance. This system ensures that emergency medical helicopters arrive and depart without confusion.

Approaching an Emergency Medical Helicopter

Safety is always top of mind when entering the landing space after an emergency medical helicopter has landed. Here are the most important tips to keep in mind to follow safety guidelines. 

  • Only approach the helicopter after the pilot or crew member gives the signal. 
  • Stay in the pilot’s view at all times. 
  • Do not walk behind the helicopter at any time due to the tail rotor hazard.
  • Only necessary personnel should approach the helicopter.
  • Do not raise anything above shoulder level around the helicopter and carry all equipment at waist level such as IV poles.
  • Do not open or close the aircraft doors.
  • Crew members will direct the loading/unloading of the patient. Crew members will ask for assistance if required.
  • No vehicles (including emergency vehicles) should be closer than 50 feet from the aircraft, and may be marshalled in by crew members.
  • No smoking or running within 50 feet of aircraft at any time.
  • Always exit the designated landing zone in the same direction that you approached the helicopter.

Securing an emergency medical helicopter landing zone is a critical aspect of transporting patients quickly and safely. The Air Methods team has compiled tips for creating a secure landing zone that will guide ground staff and helicopter pilots. With these points in mind, emergency medical helicopter landing zones can be secured with optimal safety and efficiency — saving precious time in transporting critically ill or injured patients. More information on air medical safety.