“Fill her right up. It’s a search. Migrant boat again,” the SAR commander called out to us as I struggled into my immersion suit. It was almost exactly midnight on 1 January, but our night was just beginning. There was a stubborn high-pressure system over the Iberian Peninsula and the sea was flat calm. The people smugglers had clearly paid attention to their meteorology, because the day SAR crew had already been on a similar callout on New Year’s Eve.
Forty minutes later, and 70-odd miles further south, we arrived on scene to confirm the position of a black inflatable boat with every conceivable space packed out with human cargo. The night was still, but it was dark. And it was cold.
The stark reality
Peering at the infra-red image on our screens, we counted 18 on board. That was more people than fitted into the boat, and definitely more people than were going to fit into the helicopter. This time, the search had been brief as the migrants themselves had called and reported their position to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre, and having only burned off a couple of hundred kilos of fuel on the way south, the aircraft was still pulling an uncomfortably high torque in the hover. There wasn’t a breath of wind even 15 miles offshore, and at that moment we were only capable of winching two survivors on board at most. There followed a terse discussion between the crew about the possibility of people ending up in the water.
‘Death by rescue’ is a known phenomenon in these scenarios. On the 12 April 2015, 400 migrants died when their vessel capsized as a result of the over-exuberant response of the victims on seeing the approach of a rescue vessel. It is believed to be the largest loss of life at sea in the recent history of the Mediterranean. We kept a prudent distance, but the arrival of the helicopter had scarcely gone unnoticed. With a rescue boat notified but still over an hour distant, 18 people in the water was not a scenario we wanted to contemplate.
A very real issue
The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is a hugely complex and deeply emotive political issue; it is not my intention to address it here. It is nearly impossible to discuss the topic without getting dragged into the politics of it in some way. For example, just to call it a ‘crisis’ is politically controversial in many quarters. However, from a purely humanitarian point of view, it is difficult to argue that by any definition of the term it could not be described as a crisis, both in terms of the threat to life and of its sheer scale.
The threat to life is high. In case you were in any doubt about the level of risks that some are prepared to take in attempting an improvised crossing of the sea, on 24 April 2018, a young Syrian man was spotted crossing the Straits of Gibraltar in an inflatable rubber ring. Yes, in a blow-up rubber ring of the kind your kids use in the swimming pool. The sea is still one of the most unforgiving places on Earth, so such a high-risk venture to make the crossing shows the desperation of those involved. According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 18,000 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe since 2014. Last year, the crossing of the Central Mediterranean was estimated to cost the lives of one in eight migrants.
It is the scale of the migration that illustrates why it represents such a challenge to the obligations of international SAR organizations and the co-ordination and application of their resources. In the Spanish Coastguard’s area of responsibility alone, records from 2018 (which are the most up to date currently available) show 2,338 migrant boats assisted, 49,668 immigrants rescued, and another 451 known lives lost. Those are startling figures. It is reasonable to expect that any significant and prolonged event such as this will drive an evolution in SAR procedures and techniques, in maritime surveillance systems, and in organisational response and co-ordination.
As I hovered in the darkness, flicking my eyes to and fro from the cockpit screens to the small patch of water we had illuminated with our search light that marked the position of the inflatable, I continued to play out the what-ifs in my mind. We must have been a reassuring presence, but what these people needed was a boat, not a helicopter. And if people ended up in the water, there was a very real possibility that, owing to the powerful downwash and spray, except for a chosen few, we might represent more of a threat than a salvation.
Onboard, we carry a deployable multi-person life raft that can be winched down with the rescue swimmer or launched from the hover and inflated by pulling on a line from the aircraft. In the case of multiple persons in the water, it is our last resort for those that we are unable to recover to the helicopter, but it still requires the survivors to save themselves, rather than the other way around. When rescuing multiple persons from the water, as soon as the aircraft is limited by weight, space, power or endurance, it will turn for home. Those that are left will have to wait for its return, or for the arrival of a rescue vessel, whichever is first, and this is normally a question of hours, not minutes.
There is nothing fundamentally new about this scenario. What is new is that multiple persons in the water did not used to be a concern that was likely to crop up weekly, or sometimes daily. There simply aren’t the resources to throw multiple assets into action as might be done for a major incident at sea on an almost daily basis. Put in terms of a risk assessment, which typically judges severity against likelihood, the game has changed significantly. Unfortunately, a single helicopter can do little to mitigate anything but a proportion of this risk for migrant boats, which are usually loaded with tens of of people, all of which have a higher than usual chance of ending up in the water, and many of whom can’t swim. Governments and SAR organizations are coming to understand that the numbers involved are going to require a new approach with a different application of resources and assets.
Technological and operational change
In the perennial airline operations that form the commercial backbone of the aviation industry, the cogs turn in a seemingly slow evolution of aircraft and operations underpinned by a few big manufacturers and operators. But well behind the front lines of commercial air traffic, the aviation industry is undergoing an era of rapid technological innovation right now, driven by huge leaps forward in wireless technologies – batteries, bandwidth, and bluetooth – which are carving out multiple roles for remotely piloted aircraft in almost every sphere of the industry.
And it is not just the military that is taking the lead on this. Rescue agencies worldwide are all beginning to experiment with and trial Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), known more colloquially as drones.
In southern Europe at least, there is no doubt that the experience of the migrant fleets in the Mediterranean Sea has been an important factor in driving this innovation
In the UK, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute is conducting innovative trials on the use of drones for inshore search and rescue. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is also in the process of trialling several Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), including long range and endurance Hermes 900 and Skylark systems, which will carry out exercises simulating offshore search missions. ‘SAR-2G’, the UK’s ‘second generation’ SAR contract, is expected to be awarded in 2021-22. Whereas the current setup is based around a fleet of 22 helicopters across 10 bases, the MCA sare looking to build in both manned and un-manned platforms for the future capability, including the ability to ‘innovate’ during the life of the next 10 to 15-year contract. That stands to reason when you think where unmanned technology could be by 2035.
Spain’s coastguard agency, Salvamento Maritimo, as well as the European Unions’s Frontex, have also carried out tests to evaluate unmanned aircraft in several operational situations. These include surveillance of the sea, support of search and rescue operations, and detection of vessels suspected of criminal activities, such as drug, weapon, and people smuggling. In southern Europe at least, there is no doubt that the experience of the migrant fleets in the Mediterranean Sea has been an important factor in driving this innovation. Whilst it is true that unmanned capabilities are moving apace principally because the technology is reaching maturity, the political and financial weight that has been thrown behind many of these projects is owed directly to the effects of the crisis at sea.
The decline of the helicopter as a search tool at sea?
Since it burst onto the search and rescue scene in the years immediately after the Second World War, the helicopter quickly established itself as perhaps the ultimate tool in the armoury for rescue at sea, and particularly for plucking survivors from the water. Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st Century, and the sheer number of migrant boats making the crossing from Africa, combined with the numbers of people crammed on board, have, perversely perhaps, thrown into sharp relief the limitations of helicopter rescue. The unique advantages that the helicopter used to bring to a maritime search scenario by carrying out a range of low level, low speed aerial search patterns over a given patch of sea, are no longer unique. Enter stage left the unmanned aircraft, the drone, and satellite surveillance technology.
As the capabilities, endurance, and payload of unmanned aircraft develop apace, it is already reasonable to postulate that, for some functions, helicopters no longer represent the best or most effective search assets
As the capabilities, endurance, and payload of unmanned aircraft develop apace, it is already reasonable to postulate that, for some functions, helicopters no longer represent the best or most effective search assets, and compare particularly poorly with new technology in terms of cost efficiency and endurance. RPAS are much more effective at wide area surveillance and search, allow information sharing with multiple users in real time, and are not burdened by human limitations, such as the requirements to manage flight times and fatigue, as well as the inevitable loss of vigilance during long searches (for more information on such technology, Modern technology revolutionising search and rescue operations from April 2020 Issue 105 of AirMed&Rescue). Spanish SAR helicopter crews are currently restricted by legislation to three hours of flight from engine start to shut down. This is potentially hugely limiting should a long search culminate in a winch rescue. Unmanned aircraft can already achieve many times this endurance.
Even before the introduction of unmanned search aircraft, modern SAR infrastructure, such as the introduction of the 406.0 MHz emergency locator transmitters, which communicate directly with satellite triangulation systems to pinpoint vessels or persons in distress, has done much to reduce the ‘search’ element in SAR missions. Almost all commercial and many leisure vessels can now be immediately traced to an accurate GPS position by would-be rescuers. The migrants’ inflatables, many of which attempt to reach European shores without detection, are perhaps the only large group of vessels attempting sea crossings without such modern, but basic, safety equipment on board. This could make the tragedy of the migrants in the Mediterranean both a catalyst for innovation and change in maritime search, and the final chapter for prolonged searches at sea by rescue helicopters. Is the primacy of the helicopter as a search tool slowly giving way to the go-to tools of tomorrow for maritime SAR agencies?
Less search and more rescue?
I am not suggesting that the SAR helicopter crews’ days are numbered. Clearly human decision-making on-scene, and the skills of an experienced SAR crew, will remain unmatched for some time to come in their ability to effect a successful rescue. However, it is likely that the manned helicopter in SAR will become less search and more rescue, employed more in the role of ‘dash and grab’, as the capabilities of other search assets expand and mature. In August 2018, the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Almería, which covers the Straits of Gibraltar co-ordinated the rescue of 59 immigrants clinging to an inflatable boat which was semi-submerged. Thirty-five men, 17 women, and four babies were picked up, all of whom were suffering varying stages of hypothermia. Three of those in the most serious condition were rescued by helicopter and evacuated to hospital.
What does the future hold for this kind of scenario? Satellite surveillance that can offer an almost continuous vigilance of critical sea areas; unmanned aircraft that can conduct offshore searches and offer layered coverage of the scene, from wide area surveillance to focused-area search assets such as drones launched from surface vessels; a Rescue Co-ordination Centre that can take real-time decisions on the use of assets while watching a live feed from the scene to monitor how the situation develops…
…and a helicopter that can launch for a quick sprint out and back to a known point of rescue?