Antarctic helicopter crash: survivors had luck on side

07 Dec, 2013 01:00 AM
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The survivors of an Australian Antarctic helicopter crash are said to owe their lives to two companions, and their rescue to an extraordinary chain of luck.

The injured three arrived in Hobart on Friday, 101 hours after their helicopter crashed and a white-out enveloped them on a remote, heavily crevassed ice shelf.

Good fortune sped them to safety, including availability of other aircraft, weather breaks, and on-site expertise, exemplified by former Victorian police superintendent Bill De Bruyn.

Mr De Bruyn, a search and rescue specialist, was leader at Davis station last Sunday night when a radio call came.

''The communication was very scratchy,'' Mr De Bruyn said. ''We played it back a couple of times and picked up the fact that we might have a helicopter incident … There was a white-out, heli down and injured persons.'' In a white-out, ice surface and cloud become indistinguishable.

The call came from a second Squirrel helicopter flying in tandem that landed beside the downed aircraft. But communications with it from Davis, about 280 kilometres away, were difficult. Fortunately at Davis were two aircraft from the legendary polar air company, Kenn Borek, spending a few days there on charter to the Australian program.

''We were absolutely blessed to have the Twin Otter and Basler, the two Canadian crews,'' Mr De Bruyn.

The Twin Otter left with a medical team, and gained radio communications with the crash site. But Mr De Bruyn said they were not able to land because of crevasses.

The task of extracting from the wreckage the unconscious trio with back, chest and other injuries, and making them safe and warm, was left to the second pilot and a field training officer.

Again, Mr De Bruyn said, the right person stepped up. The FTO, who has declined to be identified, is a wilderness first aid instructor. Working with the second pilot they secured the injured trio.

The Basler spent nine hours aloft giving immediate weather information so the Twin Otter could rendezvous with the second helicopter at a landing strip 90kilometres from the crash site. ''This is where the rescue gets quite incredible,'' Mr De Bruyn said.

The two aircraft shuttled back and forth to the Twin Otter twice, then all three headed for Davis.

''To be honest, I think we had five minutes to spare,'' Mr De Bruyn said. ''If we hadn't got to the site as we did, we probably wouldn't have got there for another couple of days.''

SMH

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