Why Do Cruise Ships Have Helipads? Here’s Your Answer!

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A green helicopter pad on the bow of a cruise ship

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Nothing is more relaxing than going on a cruise for a few days to recharge your energy before returning to your busy schedule.

While everyone is usually captivated by the fresh breeze and sparkling ocean water, you could be wondering about a totally different thing: Why do cruise ships have helipads?

The helipad on a cruise ship is used for emergency evacuations, usually reserved for medical emergencies. Helicopters rarely land on the helipad, but the open space above them allows them to hover over them to hoist passengers into the safety of the helicopter.

Why Do Cruise Ships Have Helipads?

A green helicopter pad on the bow of a cruise shipPin

A helipad’s main purpose on a cruise ship is to provide unobscured access to rescue helicopters in case of an emergency.

Helipads are most commonly used in medical emergencies when a person requires an immediate evacuation from the ship to a medical facility.

Despite what you might think, helicopters rarely land on the helipad of a cruise ship. Instead, the open space above the helipad provides a safe area for the helicopter to hover while the person is hoisted by a basket into the helicopter.

Picking that passenger up into the air is the quickest way to get evacuate a person because it takes far longer for a helicopter to land on a moving vessel safely. Additionally, waves and swells can make it unsafe for helicopters to attempt a landing on the helipad.

On the other hand, cases that require the evacuation of all passengers—such as a fire or sinking—can’t be accomplished by a helicopter. A cruise ship with hundreds or thousands of people aboard will take forever to move them to safety via helicopter.

For emergency evacuation of a large number of passengers, cruise ship lifeboats are the primary source of evacuation.

Helipads as Efficient Rescue Platforms

But why are helipads essential on most cruise ships anyway? Why can’t a helicopter hover over any part of the ship?

It all boils down to the location and design of a helipad.

Typically, the helipad is located in a secluded section of the ship, usually at the bow. While it might not exactly fit the size of a large helicopter, it still provides enough open space to allow the rescue.

Plus, helipads don’t have lights that are as bright as those on the rest of the ship. The dimly lit setting allows the helicopter captain to see where they need to lower their craft without facing vision complications due to glare.

Why Do Most Helicopters Not Land on Cruise Ship Helipads?

A coast guard helicopter providing emergency evacuation for a passenger on a cruise ship by helicopterPin

It may come off as a surprise that most rescue helicopters don’t really land on cruise ship helipads. Instead, they’ll hover above the helipads and use a winch to haul the passengers that need rescuing with the help of a trained medical crew.

But why does that happen?

It turns out that it’s risky for a helicopter to land on a cruise ship, and here’s why:

Helicopters Too Heavy and Too Big

First off, most cruise ships aren’t designed to accommodate the weight of a helicopter. For a helicopter to safely land on a ship’s helipad, it must weigh less than 10,000 pounds.

However, you’ll find out that most rescue helicopters range from 8,000 to 23,000 pounds while empty. Add the weight of the rescue equipment, crew, and fuel, and those numbers will climb much higher.

Additionally, the average rescue helicopter needs around 75 feet of clearance in all directions to land on a flat surface.

Of course, it’s hard to find a helipad on a cruise ship with those dimensions. The ship owners would rather use as much space as possible to accommodate more passengers!

Many Obstacles on the Cruise Ship

Another reason why helicopters don’t touch down on helipads is that helipads are often surrounded by furniture, antenna, wires, lights, etc. The ship’s crew will have to remove all these things to give a helicopter ample room to land on a helipad.

It’s much easier to remain in the air, away from anything blocking a helicopter’s access.

Don’t forget that the closer a helicopter gets to a helipad, the more forceful the rotor wash will be. This can be risky for the people on the ship as the strong wind will violently propel any nearby objects into the air, which may result in accidents.

Hard to Align a Helicopter with a Pitching Ship

Last but not least, remember that even the most skilled helicopter pilots will find it very difficult to position themselves squarely above a cruise ship for landing.

This is especially the case if the ship is already rolling or pitching, making aligning a helicopter with it a risky situation. It’ll be much tougher if the rescue attempt is held at night.

Also, landing on an unfamiliar ship is difficult as it is, even if the pilot is highly trained.

Are Helipads Accessible by Passengers on Cruise Ships?

View of a royal caribbean cruise ship from the helipadPin

Most cruise ships allow passengers access to their helipads for a pleasant stroll and an unmatched view of the ocean and sky. On your next cruise, you can take advantage of that!

What makes a helipad a must-visit place on a cruise ship is that it’s away from areas that are usually crowded with people and activities. So, you can imagine how quiet and peaceful it is, especially at night.

Better still, helipads aren’t flooded with light. If your cruise ship has a helipad that is accessible by passengers, it’s the best location to see the stars.

Coming from a big city, I was in disbelief at the number of stars in the sky. From the helipad on Freedom of the Seas, I sat beneath countless stars and even caught a glimpse of a shooting star.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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