Our lives revolve around planning, but it’s more of a priority with rescue operations. A long-range maritime search and rescue (SAR) mission is quite a mean feat. Each country has its own SAR plan, drawn up under the guidance of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) & International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual (IAMSAR).
But what happens when disaster strikes in the middle of the ocean, between two or more countries? According to the IMO, ‘no matter where an accident occurs, the rescue of persons in distress at sea will be coordinated by a SAR organization and, when necessary, by co-operation between neighbouring SAR organizations’.
One such incident when the 1979 SAR Convention (International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue) came into play was on 24 April 2017. The 635ft bulk carrier, MV Tamar, suffered an onboard explosion, fatally injuring two seamen and leaving two others with severe burns covering more than 55 per cent of their bodies. The vessel had been traveling from Baltimore, US, to Gibraltar. The challenge was that it occurred approximately 1,130nm east of Cape Cod and 650nm from the Azores, Portugal, almost at the border of the US maritime area of responsibility, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The benefits must be weighed against the inherent dangers of such operations to both the person needing assistance and the rescue personnel
How is a rescue operation of this kind coordinated, and where does this vessel get help?
I interviewed the two mission commanders, and the interesting part is that both are from opposite sides of the Atlantic: Major Sean Boughal, Combat Rescue Officer (CRO) from the 103rd Rescue Squadron of the New York Air National Guard, and Major Armando Angelo from Esquada 751 of the Portuguese Air Force. I discovered how everything was planned, and how it developed into one of the most unique rescue missions ever undertaken at sea.
A task of this magnitude is not conducted every day, but thanks to the 1979 SAR Convention and agreements between participating nations to assist those in peril at sea, the responding rescue units were alerted within three hours of the original call from the MV Tamar captain. One might think that three hours is a long time, from reporting to alert, but in aviation – when gathering and assessing information and obtaining permissions for a normal long-range mission – this timeframe is normal.
When an incident happens at sea, depending on the location, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) for that country is contacted. The MRCC or RCC then makes the decision on how to respond, based on its type, the location and the assets available – and if the mission needs to be handed over to another country’s RCC. Assets can range from local rescue organisations to ships sailing in the area.
According to IAMSAR, when ship medical evacuations are being considered, ‘the benefits must be weighed against the inherent dangers of such operations to both the person needing assistance and the rescue personnel.’ IAMSAR Manual Volume III (2016).
There are five progressive stages within a SAR response:
- Awareness: when any agency or person within the SAR system becomes aware that of a potential person, vessel or aircraft in distress
- Initial Action: SAR agencies are alerted that they may be required, but more information needs to be obtained and assessed before action is taken. In some cases, this process is expedited when those in peril are in immediate danger
- Planning: this involves the operational planning for the overall mission. From the search to the rescue of those involved, their delivery to tertiary care and finally, the recovery of rescue crews safely back to their home base
- Operations: the activation of the SAR crews once permissions have been granted and are concluded when the casualties have been delivered to tertiary care or a place of safety, or once a search has been terminated
- Conclusion: SAR crews have returned to base, their debrief has been concluded and the equipment and assets have been restocked, washed and refuelled.
The original distress call from the MV Tamar’s captain was received by RCC Lisbon in Portugal just before 12:00hrs UTC on 24 April 2017. RCC Lisbon passed on the ship’s call to RCC Delgada in the Azores, since the vessel was transiting the Atlantic towards Europe. RCC Delgada established that the ship’s position was within the area of responsibility of the US, so they passed on the distress call to USCG RCC DS Portsmouth in Virginia, who in turn relayed it to USCG D1 CC in Boston, who then became the Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator (SMC).
Initial action stage
USCG D1 CC’s initial action, based on received information and in consultation with RCC Halifax, was to divert two naval vessels towards the MV Tamar. However, it would take time, as they were at a distance of 350nm from the ship. USCG D1 CC also contacted RCC Portugal to ascertain if there were any Portuguese SAR assets available and their capabilities. Considering the urgency and nature of the seamen’s injuries, USCG D1 CC contacted the 103rd Rescue Squadron via the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard to assess if they had the capabilities to conduct a mid-Atlantic rescue. Having just returned from a trip to Bermuda and visiting the Bermuda RCC, Major Boughal had established a strong working relationship with the RCC Director, so he contacted Bermuda RCC to obtain an updated position of the ship – and then proceeded to contact the MV Tamar via email for an update on the condition of casualties, weather and sea status, along with communication frequencies and boarding capabilities. Major Boughal said: “I knew he could get me the accurate info fast, confirming the fact that trust and relationships are key in real-world ops.”
It was established that two of the units within the 106th Rescue Wing – the 103rd Rescue Squadron Guardian Angels (The Pararescue Team) and 102nd Rescue Squadron containing the HC-130s – would be able to conduct the rescue, with the assistance of the Portuguese Air Force’s 751 Squadron assigned to the Aerial Detachment of Azores (DAA).
Throughout the planning process, risk assessments were conducted, as this mission was panning out to be highly complex, from the deployment of the Pararescue Team to the treatment of the two injured seamen, to their recovery from the MV Tamar by the Portuguese Air Force. On its own, one can imagine that this rescue was already complex, but just to add that extra bit of spice, the weather was not going to play its part.
The 102nd Rescue Squadron reported that they had HC-130 available and ready for the mission and the aircrew was confidently scheduled for a training flight that very day. In addition, an H-130 from USCG Air Station Elizabeth City was put on standby, in the event of any mechanical problems with the first aircraft.
In the background, the 103rd Rescue Squadron’s Flight Surgeon was evaluating the casualties, based on information received from the ship’s master. Major Boughal said that having direct contact with the ship was a key component of mission planning and treatment of casualties.
Three major factors came into play: distance, on-scene weather and sea conditions, and casualties and how long the 103rd Rescue Squadron would be on-scene treating them before arrival in the Azores.
Distance: it was decided that due to the sheer distance beyond that of a helicopter’s capability, the only way to deploy the Pararescue Team was to parachute into the Atlantic Ocean at night, then rendezvous with the MV Tamar utilizing their Rigged Alternate Method Zodiac (RAMZ). Luckily, this is something that the 106th Rescue Wing has trained for regularly, but it was now being put to the test. The 751 Squadron of the Portuguese Air Force would wait for the ship to sail within range of their EH-101 helicopter, before launching to recover the casualties and the Pararescue Team and delivering them to Horta on Faial Island. Here, a Falcon 50 Portuguese Air Force jet would transport them to tertiary care in Lisbon.
The decision was also made to have a Portuguese Naval Corvette, NRP Jacinto Cândido, on standby in the vicinity of the MV Tamar during the recovery operations. This was a safety and backup support vessel with extra medical supplies, in the event of any accidents or if the EH-101 was not able to affect a winch recovery.
On-scene weather and sea conditions: The weather was deteriorating, and the operation would be conducted at night, making it a high-risk rescue. Continuous adjustments to the plan and risk assessments would need to be carried out during the flight out to the MV Tamar. A well-coordinated plan was needed, in order to deploy the seven-man Pararescue Team, two RAMZ and four supply bundles, all within close proximity of the ship. Once in the water, the team would inflate the two RAMZ bundles and recover the supply bundles in 10ft seas, before making their way to the ship to begin treatment of the casualties.
Amount of time spent on-scene: Considering the number of casualties, the severity of their injuries and the length of time on-scene before recovery, it was decided to send a seven-man Pararescue Team, consisting of two Combat Rescue Officers and five Pararescuemen. When planning any maritime medical evacuation, a team will be taking into consideration the type of injuries, the amount of time they will have on deck to stabilize the casualty and the type of treatment required on-scene and during the return flight. The Pararescue Team faced a different scenario. Once on deck, they would need enough equipment to treat casualties for approximately 36 hours, the amount of time it was estimated for the MV Tamar to reach the Azores. Burn injuries are complex and require a significant amount of care. The Pararescue Team planned four supply bundles containing medical supplies and gear. Additional quantities also had to be ordered in from nearby hospitals, for an extended time on-scene with such critical patients and until they could hand over to tertiary care.
Operations don’t always go smoothly, but can still succeed when curveballs are thrown
After three hours of planning, risk assessments and running the numbers, at 15:35hrs UTC on 24 April 2017, the USCG D1 RCC requested the assistance of the 106th Rescue Wing, via Air Force RCC, and the mission was officially given the green light. Crews were activated, supplies could be ordered, and aircraft were made ready for the long-range mission.
Following the arrival of the final load of medical supplies, the 102nd Rescue Squadron’s HC-130 was ready to take off at 18:00hrs UTC. Due to the weather, it took the HC-130 4.5 hours to reach the MV Tamar, which only allowed 1hr 55min for the deployment of two, four supply bundles and the Pararescue Team, before fuel constraints meant the HC-130 had to return to base via St John, NL.
Bad weather and low ceilings resulted in the Pararescue Team deploying from the HC-130 at 1,400ft, a height on the edge of their operating minima. There was zero per cent illumination, so the Pararescue Team needed to maintain excellent situational awareness, so as not to collide with each other mid-air. The MV Tamar had limited means to retrieve any of the team members in the event of an accident.
The deployment from the HC-130 was a success, and despite the 10ft seas making boarding the vessel challenging for the Pararescue Team, preplanning with the ship meant the crew were ready and waiting. In the early hours of 25 April 2017, the Pararescue Team began delivering life-saving medical treatment to the two remaining casualties. Updates on their conditions were communicated to the pertinent parties, including the 103rd Rescue Squadron’s Flight Surgeon, who was providing valuable telemedicine to the Pararescue Team.
As the MV Tamar sailed closer towards the Azores and crossed over into the Portuguese area of responsibility, the SMC was handed over from USCG D1 RCC to MRCC Delgada. Round-the-clock care was given to the casualties, as the Pararescue Team worked in shifts to ensure they could also get some rest.
In the early hours of 26 April 2017, the MV Tamar was finally within range of the Azores. The MRCC Delgada activated the 751 Squadron of the Portuguese Air Force and Portuguese Navy, who were already sailing towards the ship. Due to a storm now raging around the Azores archipelago, the C295 fixed-wing aircraft, which was assigned to provide top cover, could not takeoff. The decision was made for the EH-101 to depart from Lajes Field Azores on the island of Terceira and continue with the rescue mission alone, flying in strong turbulence and without external communication to rendezvous with the MV Tamar. During the flight, the crew were informed that due to bad weather and severe condition of the casualties, the initial plan to transport them to Faial Island had to be changed, and the helicopter would return to Lajes Field Azores once recovery had taken place. Then, the Falcon 50 Portuguese Air Force jet would transport the casualties and Pararescue Team to the Portuguese mainland.
The EH-101 arrived on-scene at approximately 07:50hrs UTC, an hour after the Naval Corvette, NRP Jacinto Cândido, and began the careful operation of winching the casualties and three members of the Pararescue Team onboard, with the assistance of a 751 Squadron Rescue Swimmer. The remaining members of the Pararescue Team remained onboard the MV Tamar until it reached Ponta Delgada, Azores, where they were to disembark and reunite with the rest of their team.
The return flight was conducted at a low altitude of 300ft over the water back to Lajes, in order to avoid the strong winds at higher altitudes, allowing the helicopter to land with minimum fuel. Once on the ground, the casualties were handed over to the medical crew on the waiting Portuguese Air Force jet, where they were transported to Lisbon, arriving at the hospital just after 14:00hrs UTC on the 26 April 2017, some 51 hours after the initial distress was received.
The remaining four Pararescue Team members spent a further 37 hours onboard the MV Tamar in transit to Ponta Delgada, where they made a tricky transfer to a tug in rough seas, before finally arriving on land.
Eventually, on 28 April 2017, the entire Pararescue Team boarded an HC-130 and returned to base at Gabresky Air Force Base, in Westhampton Beach, New York, where the mission was concluded on 29 April 2017.
Operations don’t always go smoothly, but can still succeed when curveballs are thrown. Along with the fact that good working relationships with coordination centers and other SAR agencies go a long way to help a plan come together, gaining valuable knowledge and expertise from others along the way.
Both casualties survived their life-threatening injuries, thanks to the hard work of the various RCCs, the amazing and heroic efforts of the 106th Rescue Wing’s Rescue Squadrons and the Portuguese Air Force.
They all live by the motto, ‘That Others May Live’.