Southern Ocean drama

The Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter completed one of its longest missions to date in November.

On November 27 we received notification of a New Zealand fishing vessel south of Campbell Island with a 35-year-old female on board who had a serious medical condition and needed to be evacuated.

Campbell Island is about 700km south of Invercargill, in subantarctic waters. The rescue helicopter was scheduled to leave at dawn the following morning.

The rest of Wednesday night consisted of crew briefings and planning for the day ahead.

We would require more than 3000 litres of fuel and some of this would need to be sourced from remote fuel stores on Enderby (part of the Auckland Islands) and Campbell islands. Two helicopters would be sent, both with two pilots and winch-capable.

The Southern Ocean is a very lonely place should, for any unforeseen reason, anything go wrong. Flying over water is not like driving a car. You cannot just pull off to the side of the road whenever you want.

The rescue helicopter left Taieri at 6am with two pilots, a winchman and an intensive care paramedic on board.

Fuel was topped up at Invercargill and, now carrying 1000 litres, they headed for Enderby Island, which is 421km south.

After refuelling at Enderby the next leg of the journey started - another 291km to Campbell Island. A satellite phone in the helicopter was used to contact the ship's medic during these two legs of the journey.

This allowed for continued updates on the patient's condition and also updates relating to arrival times as the flight progressed.

The helicopter arrived at Campbell Island at 12.30pm and the patient was prepared for the flight back. With the patient now on board and the helicopter refuelled, they headed for home.

After another fuel stop at Enderby island, the helicopter delivered the patient to Dunedin Hospital at 7.10pm that day.

The total distance covered by the helicopter was 1944km (1080 nautical miles) with a flight time of 10 hours.

Everyone returned to base following an exhausting day with some of the most intense flying in some of the remotest areas in the Southern Ocean. Strong winds, isolation and flying for continuous hours with no land in sight made this one of the more challenging missions.

The meticulous planning, experience and dedication of all those involved ensured the success of this mission and a positive outcome for the patient.

By Marie Paul, of Helicopters Otago.

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