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Monday, May 1, 2006

Holidays Put on Hold

Andrew Healey

When a grounded container ship threatened to spill caustic chemicals into precious marine habitat, a Belgian firm and a Ka-32 from Ukraine came to the rescue.

It could have been an ecological disaster. When a container ship ran aground on rocks near the Azores in December, dangerous chemicals on board threatened to poison a world-class marine habitat. Today, the sea and coastline remain largely unaffected, thanks to a Kamov Ka-32 and its crew that were dispatched from the Ukraine to recover the chemical over the Christmas/New Year holiday break.

The Bermuda-registered 15,000-ton vessel CP Valour was en route from Montreal to Cadiz, Spain, carrying a mixed cargo that included 19 tons of the highly corrosive chemical persulfate of sodium packed into sacks. After it ran aground on rocks 120 mi. north of Fayal Island, the crew remained on board to check the damage and try to offload the chemical.

A Portuguese air force SA330J Puma was dispatched to help them. However, when a team from the Greek salvage company Tsavliris arrived on the scene aboard an ex-Russian Navy tug, the head of the team decided the job demanded a second helicopter: one with a greater payload and handling qualities that were better suited to the increasingly turbulent conditions. So, while laying a boom to restrict the spread of leaking fuel oil, the team contacted utility operator Skytech in Belgium.

Skytech, directed by CEO Thierry Lakahinsky, uses Russian types widely. After discovering that more convenient aircraft operated by Spain's Helisureste were in winter maintenance, a Ka-32T was located at Ivano-Frankivsk in the Ukraine. A deal was done and the aircraft was prepared, swiftly documented and loaded aboard an Ilyushin Il-76. It was accompanied by an experienced long-line pilot, Igor Akhmetov, co-pilot Sergey Molokov and flight engineer Anatoly Vdovenko. Meanwhile, putting his Christmas on hold, Lakahinsky caught a plane from Brussels.

The Skytech crew also included Darec Romaniuk, a senior field manager who had just returned from Pakistan, where he had been directing Skytech's contribution to the earthquake relief operation, only to be immediately reassigned. He was put in charge of communications and the team's safety on board the wreck

The Kamov was reassembled in the Azores on Christmas, flown north to the scene and put straight to work. Hazardous-materials experts on board the ship had assessed the sacks of chemicals and had crewmembers wearing full chemical suits and masks divide them into netted loads.

By now, the ship was listing nearly 25 deg. and the wind was gusting strongly. "It was very uncomfortable, recalled Lakahinsky. "Thankfully, the horizontal visibility remained good outside the rain showers--the swell was heavy for most of the time and prevented the wreck from being approached by boat. Romaniuk and his team were regularly soaked by 20-ft. waves breaking over the deck and finding their way between the containers. As a result, rescue personnel were transferred to the ship from a low hover."

By the afternoon of Dec. 28, the toxic cargo had been removed by the two aircraft. However the Kamov remained in the area until Jan. 3 to help recover the ship's remaining fuel (using 35-cu.-ft. underslung bladders) and otherwise assist the salvage effort. It flew for some 25 hr. during the operation, a task eased by the availability of a compatible flight deck on the powerful tug. The holiday spirit wasn't completely forgotten: the Skytech team was treated to a memorable New Year's Eve on board--sampling what the crew claim to be "the best floating cuisine in the world."

Attempts to refloat the CP Valour having failed, plans were to dismantle her in place--a process of several months. However, she will pose much less of a threat to the local marine environment as the summer surfing season gets under way.

Tsavliris is used to chartering heavy helicopters, and last August hired a Skytech Mil Mi-26T to remove a ship's cargo during salvage in South Africa. Since fuel often must be removed in such cases, Lakahinsky is considering equipping one of his two Brussels-based Mi-26Ts with a heavy fuel pump and 530-cu.-ft.-capacity tank kit, one originally designed to replenish Soviet submarines at sea.

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