That dreaded moment; you suddenly hear the words, 'Trike down'. Your heart stops for a moment as you realise that these are your friends, fellow aviators whom you've just seen take off for a sunset flight as we all so love to do in the bush. We had considered joining them for the flight but decided that we were tired and would fly again the following morning.
Earlier this year I attended the Safety First Aviator campaign and diligently saved all the contact numbers, not thinking that I would ever have to make that call one day . . .
Upon hearing the news of the stricken aircraft, my first reaction was to get my Phone and Call Santjie White. I gathered all the information I could get, including a GPS location which I had received from another Pilot who had returned to the field to get help. I opened my contact list and there it was right at the top, ARCC (Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordinating Centre) Chief, Santjie White, along with all the standby numbers.
I called Santjie, explained the situation to her, and she immediately set the ball rolling. A few Minutes later I received a call from Jaco van Zyl, who was mobilising from Polokwane by road and I gave him all the info I had at that time. Without realising the sheer gravity of it all, I had been officially tasked and became the ears on the ground for ARCC.
A couple of the local Pilots set off to find the accident scene and see if it was accessible. They returned with photos, which we viewed on Google earth and it became very clear that although not far from the airfield by air, the farm on which the accident had occurred was around an hour and a half away by road, as one had to drive around the mountain to get there. The accident scene was a fair distance from the nearest road and with the setting sun, we realised that any rescue effort in the dark and in mountainous terrain was not possible. The aerial search party conveyed to us that they had seen one of the occupants waving at them, so we knew that at least one of the occupants of the aircraft had survived.
Santjie kept me updated the whole time and told me that she had mobilised an Oryx from SAAF 17 Squadron with a mountain rescue crew, paramedics and a Doctor that would be airborne as soon as they could. Jaco van Zyl arrived at the airfield from Polokwane around 90 minutes later and along with him the SAPS, Paramedics and other rescue services. Potties airfield was to be used as the operational base for the night rescue.
The ORYX was airborne from Swartkops at around 20h30 and arrived at Potties at around 21h30. The field was shrouded in total darkness as we were told that any light would blind the Pilots who were equipped with night vision equipment. Hearing the sound of the ORYX landing in total darkness with only limited lighting was spine chilling, as only limited navigation lights were visible in the dark night sky. One could not even make out a silhouette of the helicopter in the dark. Jaco boarded the ORYX and off they flew to find the accident site.
The Oryx returned after a while to wait as the EMS and Mountain rescue crews did their work up in the mountain. We learned that the rescue team were inserted in the darkness at the accident scene via hoist.
The wait seemed like an eternity, and finally, the ORYX started up again and set off back into the mountains. Another long wait and finally we noted the unmistakable sound of the ORYX approaching in total darkness. Just short of 6 hours from the moment I called Santjie, the rescue & recovery was completed, and the surviving aviator transported back to Pretoria where he was admitted to hospital.
In the Safety First Campaign, we were shown photos and accounts of rescue operations and stories shared of rescues, but having experienced first-hand a live operation and exactly how these brave rescuers function, one realises and gains respect for what an incredible asset Santjie White and her teams are to the whole aviation community. Had it not been for their experience, professionalism, selfless dedication and incredible resources, this story might have had a different ending.
Santjie, her team and Oryx crew are true superheroes, achieving the seemingly impossible, in total darkness.
We are truly humbled and grateful!
Our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of the aviator who tragically lost his life.
Adrienne Visser is the Grasslands Flying Club Chairperson and a MISASA Committee Member