The crew of the Coast Guard’s helicopter got into trouble on Friday when a seriously ill patient had to be picked up from Ísafjörður in bad weather. The crew decided to fly the helicopter backwards into Skutulsfjörður, reports Vísir. Doctors who treated the man at Landspítalan say the crew’s quick wit saved his life.
When the call was received by the Coast Guard on Friday, the weather at Ísafjörður was extreme, with the wind speed reaching 35 to 40 meters per second and almost zero visibility.
Andri Jóhannesson, a helicopter pilot at the Icelandic Coast Guard, appointed the crew of the helicopter that carried out the task together with pilot Þórarin Ingi Ingasson, pilot Jóhann Eyfeld, engineer Árni Freyr Sigurðsson and doctor Birki Hlynsson.
He says this was one of the most difficult missions he has handled in his fifteen-year career at the Icelandic Coast Guard.
Andri says that when we got to Westfjords, the weather was so bad that it was impossible to fly directly to Ísafjörður as usual. It was therefore decided to lower the flight to three hundred feet (about one hundred meters) and fly out of Breiðafjörður to the west of Westfjords.
Then the wind blew from the north-northwest straight into Ísafjörður, and it would have been very dangerous to fly with the wind following you into the fjord. He says the approach to Ísafjörður is one of the most difficult. The airport is surrounded by high mountains in a narrow fjord. For reference, watch this video.
He says that the crew tried twice to fly into the fjord at low altitude and almost no visibility but then decided it was impossible.
The crew decided to try to land the helicopter to discuss the situation. The crew was close to leaving the call when visibility improved slightly, and they could see Bolungarvík. It was then decided to land the helicopter on a dirt road near Bolungarvík.
When the situation was assessed, it became clear that the helicopter’s fuel reserves would probably not be enough to get back to Reykjavík, as the helicopter had been in the air for much longer than expected. Moreover, it wouldn’t be possible to transfer the patient to Bolungarvík, as he was not in a condition to do so. Therefore, the only thing in the situation was to get to Ísafjörður, where it was possible to refuel and pick up the patient.
Andri says that it was clear that it would not be possible to fly in the traditional way into Ísafjörður with the strong wind at your back. Then it would have been impossible to turn the helicopter around to land. It was therefore decided to back into the whole of Hnífsdalur with the wind “in the nose”.
In order to find the way, the aircraft mechanic Árni Freyr was assigned to show the way. He did that by hanging half out of the helicopter at the back in a harness. With the guidance of Árni Freyr and the flight skills of the pilots, the helicopter was able to fly in reverse five kilometres in about twenty minutes.
When the crew got to Ísafjörður, fuel was taken using the so-called “hot refueling” method, where the helicopter’s engines are not turned off, as it was too windy to restart them. While fueling the helicopter, the patient, who had already had to be resuscitated once, was placed in the helicopter.
The patient suffered a heart attack and was sent for surgery immediately after arriving in Reykjavík. The doctors say, the man would have died should the surgery hadn’t occurred. The man is now in stable condition.
Andri says that the incident on Friday shows how important it is that helicopter rescue issues in Iceland are in order. Not long ago, there was no helicopter available for call-out and it often happens that only one helicopter and one crew are available. Two helicopters and two crews are needed to handle calls more than twenty nautical miles away. He also highlighted that Iceland is the most difficult search and rescue area in the world. Finally, Andri pointed out that it is also important that the Coast Guard receives funding to be able to train in all conditions. After all, Friday’s mission would have been impossible without a highly trained crew.
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