S.W.O.R.D. Checklist for EMS Helicopter Landing Zones

— An easy checklist for EMS helicopter pilots, firefighters and landing zone coordinators.

EMS Helicopter pilots love…

the path of least resistance.

And I admit it.

I love it too.

Why make things hard, when easy is so much… easier.

That’s what this article is about.

An easy checklist for EMS helicopter pilots and helicopter landing zone coordinators to follow. I used this checklist for the last 10 years I flew civilian EMS. It’s simple, it works and it’s easy to remember.

I hope it helps you.

Here is the S.W.O.R.D. Checklist for EMS Helicopter Landing Zones:

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S – Size, Surface, Slope.

Size matters when it comes to landing zones, and in all cases, bigger is better.

Surface – what type? Grass, asphalt, loose gravel, snow, pasture, corn field, etc

Slope – how much? 2 – 3 degrees, 3 – 5 degrees, 5 – 10 degrees, and in what direction? East to West, North to south, etc

W – Winds

Always report direction winds are “coming from” or “out of” and estimated speed.

Example: Winds are out of the North at 10 knots or Winds are 360 degrees at 10 knots.

O – Obstacles

Report all obstacles inside the landing area cones or flares as well as any obstacles within two miles of the landing zone.

Example: trees, wires, cell phone towers, soccer nets, goal posts, fences, back stops, etc.

R – Route

Best route into and out of the landing zone for the helicopter.

Example: “Best approach is from the North to the South,” or “best approach is from the Southeast.”

D – Double Check

Double check everything, especially the stuff on the checklist. Did I find and brief all the obstacles? Do I have a good exit plan from the landing zone? Do I know the winds? Did I brief my team?

EMS and air medical is an unforgiving business. Second chances are rare. So any tool you find useful is a keeper.

My advice is to keep it simple. Simple works. Take an extra minute and make sure everything is done right the first time.

Here is the audio version of this blog post:


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Troy Shaffer
Troy Shaffer

About the Author: Troy is an Air Medical Career Expert passionate about a team approach to improving air medical safety from the ground up. Troy is a former Army medic, Army pilot, Coast Guard pilot and EMS pilot. Troy has taught hundreds of wannabe flight medics, flight nurses and EMS pilots the exact steps needed to launch air medical careers.

    6 replies to "S.W.O.R.D. Checklist for EMS Helicopter Landing Zones"

    • Paul

      Whatever happened to good ole WOTFEEL, or the ‘5 S’ rule
      Forced Landing areas
      Entry/Exit route
      Landing area.

      • Troy Shaffer


        It’s still around, and it still works great. The key is to find a system / checklist that works best for you.

        Thanks for your feedback. Fly safe.

        Clear Skies & Tailwinds

    • The Gmail Guy

      This article is ridiculous. If you can’t evaluate a confined area by the time you have the flight hour experience to become an EMS pilot…you shouldn’t be flying.

      • Troy Shaffer


        I understand what you’re saying and to a certain extent I agree with you.

        But the purpose of checklists and mnemonics isn’t to replace pilot experience. It’s simply a tool to use and share with your flight and ground crews. That’s the reason for the article.

        Remember your team extends beyond pilots, flight and ground crews have a vested interest in knowing as much as possible about landing zone operations.

        Thanks for sharing your experience.

        Clear Skies & Tailwinds,

        • Anthony Thompson

          I took this article from the position of a grounds crew person who is on the scene awaiting the arrival of a “LifeFlight” aircraft. You can be the best pilot in the world, but it won’t matter if you have nowhere to land that has already been cleared and prepped for a safe arrival and departure. As a First Responder, it is my task to make sure I guide the pilot into a most likely unknown area onto an unknown surface with numerous unknowns in the immediate area. And, the sooner I create a safe LZ for him, the sooner the pt can get the required care they need. A good mnemonic saves time and minimizes overlooking the small things that can create a catastrophic situation such as suddenly-airborne debris being ingested by the engine or low-lying obstacles that could impact the tail rotor.

    • Joel Vivian

      Landing zones our important to see in bere area

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