Co-ordination of search for men 'stunning'

John Lambeth (second left) and Lester Stevens (far right) are helped into Southland Hospital...
John Lambeth (second left) and Lester Stevens (far right) are helped into Southland Hospital following their helicopter crash in the Southern Ocean. Photo: Giordano Stolley
The man in charge of the Otago rescue helicopter service says co-ordination of the search for three men found alive after a helicopter crash this week was "absolutely stunning".

Heli Otago's Graeme Gale has in the past been a trenchant critic of the National Rescue Co-ordination Centre (NRCC), the national body formerly responsible for major maritime and aviation search and rescue missions.

That was particularly the case after the botched Time Out rescue, near Oamaru in 2003, when three men died in a fishing boat tragedy and the rescue operation was heavily criticised after a coroner's court hearing.

Mr Gale said he had been "the biggest critic in New Zealand" of the organisation in the past.

But the rescue of three men following a helicopter crash in the Southern Ocean near Enderby Island on Monday showed lessons had been learned.

The Time Out incident "brought change, and it brought positive change, and everyone stepped up to the mark".

"I think it's an absolutely stunning, world-class service that RCCNZ [Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand] are providing."

RCCNZ opened in 2004, after the Time Out incident, replacing the NRCC.

It is responsible for co-ordinating all major maritime and aviation search and rescue missions within New Zealand's search and rescue region, as well as land-based missions arising from someone activating a distress beacon.

Mr Gale said RCCNZ played an essential role this week, considering the number of people involved in putting such a rescue together.

"I think they did an absolutely fantastic job of keeping us informed."

In a very short space of time the organisation had organised a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion to fly south to look for beacons or lights.

At the same time it put a call out to the fishing fleet working in the subantarctic area, meaning five or six vessels quickly started searching.

Those vessels searched from the last known location of the helicopter in a "very rugged" area, in mist, drizzle and rain.

If helicopters had not been able to fly because of conditions, they were the only ones who would have been able to look for the men.

"I think this was an outstanding effort on their part to do what they did."

RCCNZ developed search grids of areas where the crew had the highest probability of being found.

The fishing vessels ran five or six abreast along grid lines in dark and trying conditions, found one of the helicopter's doors and would have found the crew had they still been in the sea.

"That's all co-ordinated through RCCNZ."

Mr Gale said when two helicopters left from Dunedin on Tuesday morning, the planning had to be right.

"It's a long way over water and there is no-one else who's going to get you out - you have to get yourself out of trouble."

There was a severe weather front forecast for the next day.

RCCNZ got "absolutely outstanding" weather information from MetService for the location of the crash, with cloud cover and height, wind speed and direction, and when weather would clear.

"You could probably set your watch to how accurate it was."

Helicopters needed to be able to see to land, and if there was fog "you're doomed".

The three men were found safe on Enderby Island on Tuesday.



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