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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Helicopter Heroism: 72 Kt in a Hover

James T. McKenna

The rescue by the Hong Kong Government Flying Service of 91 people from raging seas In the midst of a typhoon made its crews worthy recipients of Rotor & Wing’s 2006 Helicopter Heroism Award.

WHEN CAPT. ARDIS TANG AND HIS HELICOPTER CREW reported for duty Aug. 4, 2006 at the Government Flying Service base at Hong Kong International Airport, they might have been excused if they did a few double takes. A lot of unfamiliar faces had been moving through the base on Chek Lap Kok Island.

Over the preceding day, their colleagues at the service had saved 79 mariners from the clutches of Typhoon Prapiroon.

The evening before, the difficult decision had fallen to Capt. Brian Butt, controller of the Government Flying Service. His crews were running out of daylight and the weather was worsening. With the typhoon within 50 nm of Hong Kong, the weather conditions had been extreme. For instance, when he positioned his Super Pumas over the barge Hai Yang Shi You 298, drifting 71 nm (132 km) southwest of Hong Kong, to start rescuing 68 of its crewmembers, Capt. Michael Chan told us earlier this year, he encountered strange conditions.

After assessing the situation carefully, the crew agreed to lower Winchman Jack Chak to the barge’s helideck. But Winch Operator Kenny Cheng couldn’t open the cabin door. Chan checked his instruments; the airspeed indicator read 72 kt (133 km/hr). "That is quite unusual," he said, "for an aircraft sitting in a hover."

With that and other conditions in mind and daylight fading, Butt late on Aug. 3 elected to suspend rescue operations, deeming their continuance unacceptably risky.

With a new day and new crews coming on board, those operations would resume. In short, Tang and his crew — Capt. Bowie Fung, Benny Chan, and Stanley Lam-would launch on a mission that would require them to rescue 12 more people. That would bring the Government Flying Service’s saves for the Typhoon Prapiroon operation to 91. That is the largest number of survivors rescued in the history of the Government Flying Service and the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force.

We described parts of the Government Flying Services operation on Aug. 3-4, 2006 earlier this year ("A Day in Hell," April 2007, page 44). Now that they are winners of the 2006 Rotor & Wing Helicopter Heroism Award, we share some other aspects of that operation.

The Government Flying Service is a government department of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in China. Its primary duties are search and rescue, both over the land and offshore, supporting the Hong Kong Police in its various police and internal security roles, providing firefighting support to the Fire Department in Hong Kong. As the service likes to say, in short, it will do whatever a helicopter can do.

Regarding SAR duties, the South China Sea is the service’s primary area of responsibility under international agreements. This area is huge; it covers more than 210,000 sq mi of water. The Government Flying Service provides SAR services around the clock free of charge to the international community.

As an example, Feb. 23, at the request of the defense attaché in the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, one of its Super Puma L2s flew 190 nm east of Hong Kong and carried out a SAR operation in pitch-dark flying conditions, using night-vision goggles, to medevac a sailor from the USS Cowpens. This sailor suffered from a seizure that evening.

Following the rescues of Aug. 3, Tang and his crew had been asked to report for duty at 0400 on Aug. 4 to evacuate the last batch of survivors at first light.

Ardis humbly described the rescue as uneventful compared with those of the day before when, in fact, the weather was still extremely poor, with heavy rain, strong wind and low visibility. His crew successfully recovered the last 12 survivors on the Hai Yang Shi You 298, who were battered and very seasick, but overjoyed at finally being taken to safety.

Butt later said that, as in many successful operations, there were many factors that contributed to the Government Flying Service’s success Aug. 3-4, 2006. "In this large-scale rescue operation, I believe there was one factor which stood out. This is trust.

"There was a strong mutual trust amongst the crews involved," he said. "All of them trust each others in their professionalism and above-average flying skills. There was an unquestionable trust amongst the crews that the training that they have been given in the past was relevant and has equipped them to take up the challenges under the most difficult flying conditions. There was a total trust that the helicopters, the three Super Puma L2s, were built to withstand the fierce weather conditions, and that the systems were reliable.

"Needless to say," Butt added, "a failure of any system on board, no matter how small it might be, would be fatal under such appalling weather condition.

The service’s fleet of three Super Pumas flew a total of 12 hr during that operation, and all three performed to our satisfaction with no minor malfunctions.

While the flight and rescue crews have justifiably garnered much of the recognition for those rescues, it is important not to forget the contribution of those on the ground, particularly in such a large-scale operation.

As the rescue helicopters were aloft, the service’s headquarters was filled with activities. The engineering staff was in position to receive the returning aircraft. Ambulances were waiting in place. The canteen caterer had less than 15 min to prepare hot meals for the 23 survivors. The team of Government Flying Service staff (civilians and departmental officers) took immediate action to find enough blankets and dry clothes for the survivors and set tables and chairs in anticipation of their arrival.

During this time, the engineering staff had to prepare the helicopters for the missions. When they opened the door of the first returning helicopter, they were confronted with a terrible smell. The cabin floor was very wet and covered with vomit. They had to clean it immediately and remove some equipment from the cabin to make room for more survivors. They also carried out an inspection of the aircraft and the hoist cable.

All that was performed on the open apron amid a thunderstorm and lightning. The wind remained at 45-65 kt (80 – 120 kph) and visibility was still less than 3/4 mi (1 km). The rain was so heavy that the next departing helicopter had to wait 30 min. before it could launch.

The Government Flying Service has since received a number of honors for the rescues, including Hong Kong’s Silver Medal for Bravery for several of the crewmembers.

One recipient was Chan, who "displayed great courage, selflessness and a very high standard of professionalism and clearly demonstrated a high degree of gallantry during a life-threatening situation" as aircraft commander of the first helicopter mission to the Hai Yang Shi You 298. "He led his team to execute the rescue mission brilliantly under severe weather conditions and a hostile operating environment, and successfully saved 28 lives from the barge."

Capt. Wai-hung "West" Wu was awarded the medal for "his act of gallantry of an extremely high order" as aircraft commander on the helicopter rescue mission to the disabled vessel Wing On IV. Despite the known danger, Wu "flew a helicopter towards a typhoon and remained on scene in severe weather conditions to effect" the rescue of 23. "He demonstrated excellent airmanship, great leadership, and clearly demonstrated a high degree of gallantry."

Air Crewman Officer 3 Siu-kei "Jason" Chan was awarded the medal for being lowered to the deck of the Wing On IV to save 23 crewmembers in high seas under the severe weather conditions. "He exposed himself to extreme physical danger in this rescue mission."

Air Crewman Officer 3 Hoi-leung "Jack" Chak, on Capt. Michael Chan’s crew, also displayed gallantry of an extremely high order in being lowered to the deck of the Hai Yang Shi You 298 Aug. 3 "without hesitation to effect the rescue in appalling weather conditions."

 
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