Well, what a week I’ve had since my last post….Firstly the good…
I believe I left you with the info that I was about to head out for travel training on quad bikes which I will add are superbly suited to the environment, they’re agile, simple, efficient and can take a good amount of safety equipment. Kitting them out is fairly straightforward, we have a large pannier at the back with a great deal of travel kit, water bottles, spare fuel, stove, shovel, drills, poo bags, pee bottles, snow saw and other ‘group’ equipment such as emergency quad bivvis etc. On top of this there are two other larger kits taken with the group which are a Quad recovery kit (for when bogged in the soft powder snow) and a sea ice drilling kit which we use to check the depth of the ice in the fjords….FYI we need a minimum of 20cm to walk on, 40cm to drive quads on, personally I double that as you never know what the tide can do to the sea ice overnight.
On the front of the quad is my personal survival pack which contains the usual clothes, sleeping bag / bivvi and mat etc, also any food, snacks, camera and other smaller personal items. On the top of this you can strap down your map and GPS / compass etc as it’s in a nice place to be seen when you’re driving.
heading out on the sea ice was fantastic, because it’s shiny smooth you can get up to about 30kmph fairly safely and spread yourselves out, that said you’re well aware of the tidal cracks in the sea ice which can vary in width from just a few inches to about two feet, obviously the latter isn’t good for obvious reasons 🙂
We spent three days doing various navigation exercises in all mixes of weather and terrain, the first night we stayed in one of the field huts whilst the second we put up tents to get a feel for all the kit we have. Lots of comedy moments happened in the way that many outdoor experiences bring people together for the stupidest of things, I was cooking a boil in the bag style dehydrated military ration meal which I had to hold in my hand whilst the boiling water hydrated the food in the bag…Needless to say in gloves it wasn’t easy to grip so I covered myself in Beef teriyaki and managed to smell of it for the following two days, Corey left his cheese and crackers in the hut and Paul lost his neck gaiter only to find that Corey had packed it in his pack by accident…Small things but by the end of the trip they became the biggest of jokes that we’d constantly rib each other for…In most workplaces today it’s called harassment but where we’re from we call it camaraderie..
Lots of penguins on the go – Every time we stopped we’d be talking for a couple of minutes and then the waddling would start getting closer….they’re cunning little things because they are designed with white on the front and black on the back meaning you don’t really see them until they’re right on top of you…They do their usual thing of stopping a couple of metres away to check you out, you get down and lie on the floor like a seal and then they waddle right up to you, I sqwark at them, others hold their hands out, no real rhyme or reason but we all think our methods work to attract them. Our rules state that we don’t approach them as they can feel threatened, lie still though and they will walk all around you in a couple of minutes with no fear.
So, now onto the bad, I got a call on Sunday night about 2200hrs asking me to head to the operations building, it sounded urgent. I popped over there and there was a small crew gathered looking rather ‘tense’ and huddling around the radio console. I was asked to check and manage a couple of small communication procedures which immediately made me realise that we had a situation in progress. We were expecting a pair of helicopters back that evening after a visit out to the Amery ice shelf, the couple of broken messages we’d had indicated that they were in trouble and that one had come down hard. the next hour followed with us trying numerous communication mediums to get in touch with them, eventually the Iridium (Sat) phone seemed to work out best which enabled us to start getting short but vital bursts of information from the pilot of the second helo as to what was happening. What eventuated over the next few hours was a lot of tense communication, a scrambled aircraft to get a visual on their location and some brainstorming of how we could get the people out.
The first helo had come down hard and there were three injured that needed extracting, the second helo had come down close to them to assist but was unable to fly out in the conditions they were facing. ultimately they bedded down for the night in the survival kits they had and the physically fit guys in the second helo built shelters for the injured and attended to their medical needs. the next day we had a window in the afternoon where we were able to get a couple of aircraft into the air and land about 50nm from them, where the helo had crashed was in the middle of a crevasse field so impossible to get an aircraft into, the only option was to get as close as possible with a medical crew and ask the second helo pilot to come and collect the doctor and take them back to the crash site. What happened next was a slow process of extracting the injured on stretchers in the helo and back to the aircraft ready to be transported back to station, this took a few runs and the last, most serious casualty remained in the helo to be transported directly back to station whilst the plane went ahead with the other two casualties.
Back on station that afternoon I assumed the role of preparing the team that would remove the stretchers from the aircraft and transport them to our medical facility, the landing strip is about a kilometer out the front of the station on smooth ice but the drive back would be very bumpy near the tide cracks. I had one of the guys practicing the route in one of the Hagglands which was prepped with an airsprung stretcher in the back specifically designed for spinal complications. I also had the teams train with stretchers remaining on site to insert and extract the casualty from the Hagg and likewise into the medical suite through some tight doorways.
When the plane arrived we met them on the skiway and put our well versed team into action, I boarded the plane first to chat with the Doc and caught first sight of our friends in stretchers not looking at their best. At that point I really just stepped back and co-ordinated the stretcher teams to ensure that they understood what they were doing. It was by no means quick, I think we were about three hours all up until we had every casualty in the SMQ and under observation by some of our team who’d trained as lay surgical assistants. To be honest everything was carried out in a textbook manner and I’m very happy with everyone for just accepting the direction I gave them and carrying out what they asked without question – It was fantastic to watch it all come together.
At this moment in time I’m not 100% sure of the full extent of the injuries of one of the casualties however another of them today was joining us at the dinner table to eat normally tonight, yes they were bruised and battered but they were laughing and as charismatic as normal which was great to see. I can’t talk too much in detail about the state of the aircraft but the pics I’ve seen certainly indicated to me that I would not expect anybody to be alive from an impact like that let alone walk away. They are certainly three of the luckiest people I know.
A media release from the AAD and message from MP Greg Hunt can be read here
So a few pictures of usual, some of the training and some of the SAR team work during the evac.