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Sunday, September 1, 2013

No Mess, No Fuss

A trio of elderly MBB/Eurocopter BO105 Bolkows has completed the second phase of a rat eradication program on a remote Antarctic island.

By Andrew Healey

Clearing the helicopters of snow before the day’s mission begins.
When it comes to dealing with Mother Nature, a helicopter usually appears at the beginning of a project. Whether counting seabirds, tracking migrations, “darting” large mammals or removing forest clutter, the crew rarely have the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their labor first-hand.

Not so on the remote British Antarctic Territory of South Georgia. That’s right, the island where the opening shots of the Falklands conflict were fired in 1982. Now back in London, two New Zealand pilots and one British have immediate feedback from their efforts, expended over the first six months of this year over its inhospitable terrain.

They killed many, many rats. In fact they wiped out whole colonies of the vermin. And given a fair wind, and the required funding, they will be back in 2015 to finish the job.

South Georgia is the best and worst place in the world to fly helicopters. When the weather is good over the South Atlantic island, it is invariably 8/8s blue, cold and dry with fantastic visibility. There are no “nimbys” (not-in-my-backyard residents) or power lines and, as long as you give the obvious penguin and elephant seal colonies a wide berth, you can fly wherever you want. Hovering close to a vertical glacier edge is a humbling experience.

The conditions can also change from perfect to impossible in an instant. Ice-laden clouds and the real threat of 100-knot katabatic winds will send you scuttling home to mother or a sea-level base, in short order. So if your day-to-day task requires you to fly careful creeping-line-ahead tracks in a mountain environment at a steady 150 feet and 40 knots, alone in the cockpit with the door off, advancing 40 meters at a time while following a flashing LED indicator and all the time watching poison pellets spray from a spinning hopper, it pays to keep a weather eye open as well.

Eggs & Chicks at Risk

Bolkow flying over a glacier.
South Georgia is infested with rats. The island was discovered by Capt. James Cook of the Royal Navy in 1775 and proved popular with seal hunters for many years afterward. However, Norwegian whalers introduced the rodents in numbers during the early part of the 20th century, after they built a jetty for their vessels to come alongside. Since then, the vermin have multiplied and wreaked havoc on the native fauna, notably on the chicks and eggs of penguins and seabirds, and the vital tussock grasses. The native wildlife has no defence against them.

The good news is, while they can be found everywhere on the lower slopes of this mountainous island, over the years the packs have become isolated by glaciers. As a result, they can be tackled one at a time without fear of re-infestation. Indeed, as South Georgia Heritage Trust signs off the second phase of its eradication program, it can be confident that the first one, back in 2010, was (and remains) a complete success.

Last November, three MBB 105s – formerly UK air ambulances – were shipped out to the island that lies 870 miles (1,400 km) to the east of the Falklands. From February to May, during the short southern summer, they dispensed 270 tons of rat poison from underslung hoppers onto the vermin. The team of pilots and engineers operated from a temporary base near the old whaling station at Grytviken, and later from a series of Forward Operating Bases spread around the northwestern coastline.

George Philips is a former RAF aviator who once commanded the Falklands SAR Flight and here took the utility pilot role, backing up the New Zealand aviators who sowed the bait. He explained the importance of keeping an accurate track while dropping the payloads.

“Every single rodent must be given the opportunity to eat the poison so, to guarantee that, we must sow five kilograms per hectare at a particular height and speed – and cover all the ground. To ensure we leave no gaps, we maintain a 40 percent track overlap. Our flight paths are monitored at base and we are not allowed to divert more than five meters from them – otherwise we are sent back to finish the job. We have to get everywhere: any old whaling buildings or shipwrecks are entered on foot – not by us though – and poison distributed by hand to the same proportions.”

Fly the Bar

View from the inside of the cockpit during a
rat eradication operation.
The poison’s first effect, Philips explained “is to render the vermin photo-phobic – afraid of the light – so they retreat to their burrows and die underground. This ensures that indigenous predators like skuas or gulls don’t take their carcasses. So there’s no mess, no fuss.

There is not much in the way of avionics to keep Philips and his colleagues on the straight and narrow. The principle device is a bar on the instrument panel featuring a row of LEDs, the digital equivalent of a swing-needle. The planned tracks pay scant attention to topography so mountain-flying techniques such as maintaining a horizon and having an escape plan are vital (if an engine fails, as long as the load is jettisoned smartly they will maintain single-engine performance). An external mirror tells them what the hopper is doing. There is a radalt, but no height hold. As for handling there is, according to Philips, little to choose between stab “in” and stab “out.”

Away from their primary role, the Bolkows also provide the expedition with a vital logistical lifeline. Once the first FOB was established and the support vessel gone, the helicopters were responsible for load-lifting the entire infrastructure, including the rest of the 25-strong team, numerous drums of aviation fuel and erected frame-tents, from one ice-bound coastal area to the next. They continued to sow their payloads until the poison was correctly distributed and they could move on again. And as long as the weather held, they kept right on going. Whenever the weather turned particularly nasty, the Bolkows were lashed to augurs drilled straight into the ground.

Race Against Time

Returning to reload.
The pace was relentless: with the weather regularly limiting flying to one day in three, logging seven hours a day became routine. On May 18th, the team made one last push. As the light was fading and the final bait bucket was emptied, they succeeded in meeting their 2013 baiting target of 580 square kilometers (360 square miles). By this time, the helicopters had flown a combined total of 600 hours over South Georgia and made more than 1,000 flights.

Despite the rat colonies’ isolation, there is pressure on the team to complete the task in 2015. A longer-term factor working against them is the unprecedented rate of retreat of the 100-plus South Georgia glaciers. Over the past 50 years almost all of them have shrunk, several by more than a kilometer. According to Program Director Tony Martin, within a decade the separate colonies of rats could start to intermingle. “This would be disastrous,” he noted.

However, if everything falls into place, this threat will not materialize in time to threaten the promised “spectacular” recovery of the South Georgia bird life. “The grass is already growing back in the Phase 1 area and songbirds are nesting again.”

Significantly, no sign of rats has been found in the area baited during the trial phase and, the Trust believes, that the trial has been successful in eradicating every rat in the area. This first phase used 58 tons of bait spread over an area of 128 square kilometers (79 square miles).

According to Tony Martin, the team “battled against the odds with the weather, our biggest enemy, but through great teamwork and planning we managed to meet our target.”

He added: “To clear this magnificent island of rodents accidentally introduced by humans has been an ambition of mine for over a decade and I am thrilled we are well on the way to securing this important seabird habitat for future generations.”

The South Georgia Heritage Trust is now fundraising for the final season of work. To date, together with its U.S. counterpart Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI), SGHT has raised some £5 million ($7.6 m) of the £7.5 million ($11.45 m) needed to complete the program. Over the next 12 months both organizations will work hard to secure the £2.5 million ($3.81 m) required to complete the project in early 2015, when the remaining 300 rodent-infested square kilometers of South Georgia will be baited. A further £0.5 million ($.76 m) will be required for monitoring, to check that no rats or mice survived.

Chairman of the SGHT, Howard Pearce is satisfied with progress. “We are confident that we can realize our vision of returning South Georgia to the pristine state in which Captain Cook discovered it, back in 1775.”

 

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