Squadron 15

2013-01-24 00:00

MIDSUMMER thunderstorms, mountain peaks, falling darkness. A helicopter pilot’s nightmare. That was what faced the crew of an SAAF 15 Squadron Oryx helicopter when they headed out to rescue a man bitten by a puff adder while hiking in the Drakensberg earlier this month. Perhaps they drew inspiration from the squadron’s motto, Aquila Petit Ardua – The Eagle Seeks the Heights.

The man was rescued and Mountain Club of South Africa KwaZulu-Natal section rescue convener Gavin Raubenheimer was full of praise for the pilot: “It was a successful operation which involved skilled flying.”

The skill came courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Graham Chisholm. Fifty-six-year-old Chisholm is a man who spends his life on stand-by. “During working hours, I’m on one-hour stand-by; after hours it’s two.”

The recent mountain rescue was a text-book case. “The people involved in the mountains got hold of the local game rangers and then Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife contacted the Mountain Club, which contacted tactical headquarters at SAAF permanent HQ — then they phoned me and said this is the situation.”

Crew members on stand-by were alerted. “Even after-hours people are here within one to one-and-a- half hours; then we get together and do our planning.”

The Oryx took off with three crew members: pilot, co-pilot and a flight engineer. “He does the hoisting at the rescue site,” says Chisholm.

After picking up the Mountain Club rescue team in Pietermaritzburg, they headed for the Drakens­berg.

On arrival at the incident site, decisions have to be made quickly and the point comes where the pilot has to “commit” to the rescue, hovering over the site so that the rescue team can be lowered. “Once you are committed in a very deep gorge — like this last rescue — if anything goes wrong, you know that’s it. But I trust that machine to the utmost.”

Once the patient is stabilised and hoisted up into the helicopter, it makes for a hospital with a helipad, either in Pietermaritzburg or Durban.

* * *

Chisholm became interested in flying from an early age. “I was building models at 10 years.”

Chisholm’s parents were originally from Durban, but he was born in Zambia, though he came to South Africa for his schooling at Highbury and Kearsney. His family returned to Durban in 1973.

Chisholm began flying while doing his national service in the army, after getting to know the daughter of Graham Woolfe of Oil of Olay fame. “Her father had his own private plane and I would go and fly with him.”

Chisholm applied to join the SAAF and was accepted in 1976. He’s been with 15 Squadron since 1984.

* * *

SAAF 15 Squadron is based next to the old Durban International Airport and has the provincial responsibility for search and rescue missions — both mountain and sea — communication flights and VIP flights.

“15 Squadron started at the beginning of World War 2,” explains Lieutenant-Colonel Trevor Williamson, officer commanding 15 Squadron. Initially, it flew in co-operation with the Royal Navy and was involved in the search for a German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee.

“It was involved in the North African campaign in Abyssinia and then went on to the campaign in the Mediterranean,” says Williamson. “They flew light bombers.”

The squadron was disbanded at war’s end in 1945 and reformed in 1967 at AFB Swartkop to fly the Super Frelon helicopter. After various transfers around the country, it came to Durban in 1980.

The Super Frelons were retired in 1991 and the squadron was equipped with Puma and Alouette III helicopters. “We are now equipped with light-utility and medium-lift helicopters,” says Williamson — Agusta 109s and Oryxes.

As well as flying in KwaZulu-Natal, 15 Squadron has also been deployed outside the country on missions with the United Nations in the Congo and elsewhere. This has seen Chisholm fly rescue missions in Madagascar, Uganda, Burundi, Congo and Mozambique.

15 Squadron played a key role in the 2000 Mozambique floods and out of the 14 300 people who were rescued, 15 Squadron rescued 7 210. “That was grim,” recalls Chisholm. “I saw people drowning there. These were poor people. There were bodies just floating past. There was nothing you could do about it.”

Thanks to the darkness and the deep gorge, the recent rescue in the Drakensberg stands out as a particularly dangerous one, says Chisholm. But even given ideal conditions, mountain flying can be hazardous. “In the mountains there are up and down drafts, winds and heights. The higher the altitude, the less lift you get.

“But deep-sea rescues are the ones that stand out; flying low with swells 30 to 40 feet high. I remember once flying 258 miles out to sea for a lift from an oil tanker. The skipper had had a heart attack. And it was night time.”

Rescues at sea present a whole new set of problems, adds Williamson. “Everything is moving — the sea swell, the pitch and roll of the ship’s superstructure, the masts and aerials and rigging — they are all moving and there’s the danger of getting caught by them.”

Such movement creates another problem: vertigo. “Day or night, you can get lovely vertigo out to sea because everything’s moving,” says Williamson.

When not deployed on rescue missions or other duties, Chisholm and his fellow pilots are in training. “We are training all the time for different conditions — in the mountain and at sea.”

This involves different configurations of aircraft for different locations — such as mountain or sea. Training for all eventualities, even an engine cutting out. “We train for that every three months — how to land on a single engine. There are no second chances in the air.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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