How did you make your start in aviation maritime SAR?
I started my rescue career as a volunteer surf lifeguard in Cape Town, South Africa in 2001. Back then, the busier beaches in South Africa had a sponsored surf patrol helicopter for beach patrol and rescue, much like the Wespac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter in Australia. The helicopter was crewed by a single pilot, paramedic, a volunteer sea rescue crewman from the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), and a volunteer surf lifeguard which operated along the Cape Peninsula. I always wondered if I would be good or strong enough to join the team, and one day the aircraft landed at our beach. The lifeguard was a girl who would train with my swim squad, and I realised at that moment that I too could be a rescue swimmer on the helicopter.
I trained hard to pass the fitness test and, in 2003, I successfully made the cut and started training as a volunteer helicopter rescue swimmer. I was fortunate enough to volunteer on both the surf patrol helicopter and local government rescue helicopter, and the latter is still operated by Air Mercy Service (AMS). A few years later, I joined the NSRI, a volunteer rescue organisation with boat stations along the South African coastline and inshore at some of the larger inland dams. At NSRI, I served on their surf launch and deep-sea going vessel and helicopter stations. I was still an active surf lifeguard and flying with AMS and the surf patrol helicopter, so it was an excellent transition to go from patrolling the surf zone in a 4.5m inflatable rescue boat to responding to call outs in a much larger area of responsibility on larger semi-rigid inflatables and eventually deep-sea going rescue vessels.
I joined the NSRI’s Western Cape helicopter station, Station 29 Air Sea Rescue, not long after I started as a small boat crewman at my first surf launch station. The NSRI has a partnership with the South African Air Force (SAAF), where they provide helicopter rescue officers and rescue swimmers for maritime SAR cases, which occur along the South African coastline. It was great to transition from the surf patrol helicopter to a helicopter which could affect rescues up to 150 NM offshore. I eventually became a helicopter rescue swimmer instructor and rescue coordinator while working fulltime as a medical sales representative until 2016, when friends within the helicopter rescue community told me to stop messing around with my day job and work in aviation fulltime.
Shortly afterwards, a hoist operator position on the sea pilot helicopter in Richards Bay, South Africa became available, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Swimming and sports have been central to your educational background and voluntary experience, but how did your interest in aviation begin?
In 1999, my Dad took my brother and I on a helicopter flight for my brother’s birthday. We took off from Cape Town’s heliport in the V&A Waterfront and as the helicopter set off from the heliport and climbed over the water, I was hooked and vowed that I would fly in a helicopter again.
What kind of adjustments did you make when moving from a rescue swimmer to hoist operator role? How did your rescue swimming experience inform the change?
Luckily, I had an overlap between serving as a helicopter rescue swimmer and becoming hoist operator. In 2014, I had the opportunity to participate on a hoist operator course with AMS in Cape Town. It gave me a new perspective as a rescue swimmer and a better understanding of activity within the aircraft, especially the communication pathway between the hoist operator and the pilot and the subsequent inputs. It gave me the tools to think ahead when it came to a rescue, and I gained a renewed respect for the hoist operator and the challenges that they were faced with, in order to insert me into a position to affect a rescue or recover the medic and myself. I was able to pass on these new insights to my fellow rescue swimmers during training sessions, and rescue swimmer students.
From the hoist operator perspective, it further enhanced my empathy: I completely understood the needs of the rescuer, I knew what was going through their mind whilst watching a ship pitching and rolling in a rough sea, and could keep a few steps ahead in my mind, ensuring the safest and most efficient hoist transfer. To the new rescue swimmers and medics, I could say, ‘I know how you are feeling, I have been there before’. The trust between the rescuer and hoist operator is immense. When new rescuers (swimmers or medics) would join the operation, I was able to guide them to what the hoist operator would require from them. Outside of the rescue sphere, I had the same approach to working with sea pilots. The helicopter is a mode of transport to get them to and from work safely, sometimes in sea conditions up to sea state 6. A lot more care was needed when working with sea pilots: their world is shipping, not aviation, so anticipating how they would approach a hoist maneuver was very important, to ensure a safe transfer.
Is there any insight from your rescue swimming experience you think more people in aviation SAR/HEMS could benefit from?
Be willing to share your experiences, never forget how you started out, the challenges and training to get you where you are today, and never discount anyone’s personal experiences, including your own. We can always learn from someone else, because no two experiences or flights are the same.
At NSRI, I was tasked with revamping the rescue swimmer course. Getting equipment to South Africa is a lengthy and expensive process, so trying out new equipment or procedures needs to be meticulously planned. The team even built an ‘on land’ simulator, where skills could be honed and equipment tested in the safety of a warehouse.
Looking in other directions, I wanted to find ways of making our operation safer, so the best thing to do was look overseas. Operations in Europe, the UK, and the USA, had been active for much longer than us in South Africa and had established tried and tested procedures. I searched the internet for old Coast Guard manuals, and I reached out to and joined EURORSA - Rescue Swimmers Association. During my first meeting, I started forming relationships with members from Sweden, Australia, Spain, Ireland, and Finland, to name a few, and passed on this knowledge onto our rescue swimmers by improving the course material and standard operating procedures.
It was the experiences and connections with other operations that helped shaped the helicopter rescue swimmer programme in South Africa, and helped us address key questions; how can we improve and do things safer? What are the steps everyone else is doing? These are still questions that I consider today, I believe it’s important not to get complacent and not get stuck in the mindset of doing things the same way forever. This will ultimately make you and your team safer and better operators.
There is a lot of discussion about hoist technology and advancement, but what kind of equipment is crucial in rescue swimming?
You can have the newest or oldest equipment as a rescue swimmer, but it’s the human that makes it work. Hiring crew with the right mental aptitude towards the job is crucial. Not every company can have the most advanced tech or the newest equipment, but they can ensure that the crew using the equipment available are the right people for the job. It takes a special kind of person to hang on the end of a cable, of an aircraft that’s hovering above, in all kinds of weather, alongside cliffs, rolling vessels, or over rough seas, putting their life and their safety in the hands of the crew onboard of the helicopter, all in order to help someone in need. Having the correct mindset and the right training will give them the tools to make the safest decision for themselves, the crew, and the casualty.
How do the bespoke challenges of operating in South Africa and your more recent European experience compare?
Regulatory wise, the European standards are higher. Moving to Europe, I was required to know a lot more information with regards to the operation. There were also a lot more checks and requirements for rear crew. These checks and requirements were set by the operators themselves, on the guidance from EASA and the local operating authority.
However, South African operators have some of the best crews I have flown with. They strive for the same high standards that I have experienced in Europe. From a maritime SAR perspective, South Africa has some highly hostile conditions and the level of skill needed to operate in those conditions is as extensive as those needed anywhere else in the world; the ocean doesn’t care who you are or where you were trained and neither does your casualty.
The pandemic has resulted in a lot of introspection, speculation, and a galvanized will to renew priorities that were forced to take a backseat during 2020/21. What kind of changes or priorities would you like to see addressed in aviation maritime SAR?
When money needs to be saved, one of the priorities that suffers the most is training. Hours have been cut across the board for a significant time, governments reduce funding to their militaries or SAR operations, and civilian customers want to pay less. Unfortunately, as new tenders come out or budgets are set, there are increasingly fewer training hours built in. But at what cost? Is a pilot or air crewman truly competent if they are only just achieving their set currencies in the required period? It would be good to see the authorities setting currency requirements for SAR and other operations, based on the area in which they will operate, such as offshore or onshore, and for additional training hours to prioritized when budgets are being set, over and above currency requirements. Because, what truly makes aircrew safe and reliable operators; currencies or competence?
Can you tell us of a particularly memorable mission during your career?
I was serving with the NSRI helicopter unit, Station 29 ASR. My team, the South African Air Force 22 Squadron, and the Western Cape Department of Health paramedics were responding to a fishing vessel 40 NM off Cape Point, as one of the crew was experiencing chest pain. We took off in the SAAF 22 Squadron Oryx helicopter, which shares similarities to the Super Puma, to rendezvous with the vessel, a 37m iron fishing trawler named the African Queen.
The weather was poor, low ceiling and lots of drizzle, not to mention the sea conditions were also quite rough. The vessel had lots of rigging and very limited space for the hoist maneuver and the only place to set the medic and myself down was the bow. It was a challenging hoist for the flight engineer – I said my hellos to the midship rigging and radar dome a few times – but he eventually lowered me onto the bow and that is where I learnt a valuable lesson: always use a zap/discharge lead when hoisting to a vessel, because static discharge hurts.
Due to the rough sea conditions, a few of the crew had come to the bow of the trawler to catch me and the medic, and neither they nor I expected the extreme static discharge. As I was winched just above the deck, the static jumped from me to the crew, knocking one guy to the deck and sending the others running. I still had to assist the medic onto the deck, but the static discharge did not stop there, and seeing the static arc from the medic’s foot towards the bow is a sight I’ll never forget.
Once he was on deck and we assessed the patient, it was ascertained that we needed to conduct a stretcher hoist to recover him into the aircraft. There was no boat hook, so every single hoist and every single time that the hook came close enough to being caught by myself, I got shocked. I was wearing a 5mm wetsuit, so I quickly figured out that it did not hurt as much if I tried to catch the cable just above the hook in the crook of my arm. We managed to safely recover everyone back onto the aircraft, and once I had finally been recovered, I took a moment and I just lay on the cabin floor, tears from the pain, before I quickly composed myself to assist the medic. After that mission, the zap/discharge lead was always onboard.