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Hanging by a Thread

Due to a quick reaction four people who have been caught in an avalanche in the mountains in Bosnia and Herzegovina were saved by an Austrian EUFOR helicopter crew with their S-70 "Black Hawk”. The entire operation was carried out in the darkness in difficult terrain.

With a shattered left thigh, internal bleeding and in shock, Petar Golijanin’s fellow survivors realized that he had no more than hours to live. At the very least he expected to lose his leg. The trip into Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Zelengora mountains to film a documentary about the region’s natural beauty had descended into horror as an avalanche had swept away the party of four and trapped them in freezing temperatures at an altitude of 1 500 metres. This year on the night of 20 March, darkness fell rapidly and the nearest habitation was 20 kilometres away through knee high snow. Dragging their frightened colleague to safety would not therefore be an option.

Frantic cell phone calls to the Bosnian emergency services initiated a rescue operation by a EUFOR helicopter based at Camp "Butmir” near Sarajevo. Says the rescue coordinator Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Santner, "the Bosnian and Herzegovinian authorities are not equipped to fly at night so the calls were passed to the EU Police Unit who immediately contacted EUFOR’s Joint Operations Centre where I am the Chief of Air Operations. The avalanche survivors were equipped with GPS so we were able to establish their exact location via SMS messaging. Normally we would launch an ‘Alouette’ III helicopter which is on 90 minutes standby throughout the hours of darkness but the forest in which the survivors were sheltering had trees 30 metres tall and the winch on the ‘Alouette’ is only good for 25 metres. Instead I decided to scramble a Sikorsky S70-A-42 ‘Black Hawk’ which is the export version of the American military’s UH60L. With more powerful engines and a winch that can lift up to 272 kilograms and operate down to 82 metres we could rescue all the survivors in a single, rapid mission. I trained the aircraft commander myself so I knew that Captain Christian Schuller (a ‘Black Hawk’ Squadron Commander in Austria) and his crew would be up to the job of a mountain rescue flown using Night Vision Goggles. The standards demanded by the Austrian military flight school is extremely high but it means that crews can operate in extreme conditions with absolute professionalism. Only three percent of volunteers for flying training pass-out as pilots”.

Captain Schuller takes up the story: "My ‘Black Hawk’ cruises fast at 120 knots (200 km/h) and I concentrated at maintaining at least 150 metres clearance from the rising ground. To help me, I have a radar altimeter which bleeps and warns me to pull-up if we fly a bit low. The helicopter has a state of the art ‘glass cockpit’ which means that the instrumentation and navigation is straightforward using large computer generated displays and I can concentrate on flying as fast and safely as possible. It was a clear night so the Night Vision Goggles worked well from the ambient star light. Within 25 minutes we were approaching the target area and the crew made their last minute preparations by adjusting harnesses and checking their survival equipment. Alerted by the thumping beat of the approaching rotor blades the avalanche survivors lit a fire and flashed their torches and I was able to bring the aircraft into steady hover above tree canopy very quickly. First to leave the warmth of the helicopter’s cabin and descend on the winch was our mountain guide Warrant Officer First Class Willie Reich. With 25 years of experience as a mountain leader he was able to assess the conditions on the ground and prepare those able to walk for extraction. Next down the wire thread was the crew doctor Marcus Osarowsky and Warrant Officer First Class Herbert Rindler. Herbert is normally a flight engineer and trained paramedic operating with ‘Alouette’ IIIs but faced with the emergency, needs must, and the hybrid crew proved to be a resounding success on the night. Between them they eased the relieved casualty into a special vacuum rescue bag and stretcher that immobilized his broken leg and shielded him from the freezing downwash whipped up by the rotor blades. Only three hours after the first call to the emergency services, the "Black Hawk” was touching down outside Sarajevo’s main hospital and a tearful family was reunited safely. Thankfully due to the prompt action by all those involved in the rescue the surgeons managed to save Petar’s leg and it is anticipated that he will make a full recovery in due course.

EUFOR is commanded in Bosnia and Herzegovina by an Austrian Major General, Bernhard Bair who explained that it was teamwork between all the parties that saved lives that night. He said "Everyone played their part in the rescue, from the policeman that relayed the initial call, to the helicopter technicians that keep the aircraft flying and the medical staff in the hospital. Above all EUFOR is charged by the European Community to guarantee the safety and security of all the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Liaison between my soldiers and the Bosnian and Herzegovinian authorities is well practiced and this rescue was a practical demonstration of the value of working together.”

Nine facts about the Austrian "Black Hawk”-helicopters

1. Austria operates a total of nine "Black Hawks”.

2. "Black Hawks” stay airborne for a maximum of two hours 15 minutes without refuelling.

3. Austrian crews spend a month at a time with EUFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

4. A multi purpose helicopter, the "Black Hawk” delivers a range of roles to the Austrian armed forces including battlefield mobility, cargo transportation and fire fighting.

5. When operating in the fire fighting role the "Black Hawk” is equipped with a bucket capable of lifting 3 000 litres of water.

6. Camp "Butmir’s” "Black Hawks” are from Austria’s Medium Transport Helicopter Squadron assigned to the Aviation Support Wing.

7. When in Austria, the "Black Hawks" are based at Brumowski airbase Langenlebarn, approximately 30 kilometres West of Vienna.

8. The "Black Hawks” have complemented the smaller Agusta Bell 212 helicopters in Austrian service.

9. Austrian "Black Hawk” pilots travel once a year to the USA to train on emergency procedures in a simulator.

Author: Major (OF-3) Bruce Foster is a British Royal Marine and spokesperson for EUFOR BiH. His role involves media analysis, advising the command on influence activity and explaining the position of EUFOR BiH to the regional and international media.

The rescue was filmed by the survivors and can be viewed on YouTube with the title "Spasavange iz lavine na Zelengori” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tY3wntoBSjQ .

To find out more about careers as aircrew with the Austrian Forces view www.bundesheer.gv.at.

For more information about the rescue please contact EUFOR Spokesperson Major Bruce Foster Royal Marines: Bruce.Foster@eufor.eu.int, cell 00387 (0)61 177 943, phone 00387 (0)33 49 5216.

Eigentümer und Herausgeber: Bundesministerium für Landesverteidigung | Roßauer Lände 1, 1090 Wien
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