The life of an alert Search and Rescue pilot is a paradox. A nasty internal fight between our personal will and the humanitarian good sense.
You see, we all want to fly. Every pilot wants to “start’er up” and take off towards the blue skies. That’s what we’re there for. On the other hand, there was the harsh reality: whenever we got to fly, we knew someone would be in serious trouble.
“If we have to get into action, it might as well be on my shift”. That was the consolation we tried to give ourselves. There are alerts, no matter what. It might as well be when we were up.
That’s what happened on January 31st, 2011, a little after lunch time and with a full stomach.
The exact time at which our bodies tries really hard not to respond to our brain. But a single phone call manages to change that. Instantly.
“ALERT!” people scream around the squad premises.
“HEY! Flight time!”
I was the co-pilot on alert that day. The captain was a big friend of mine which, years later, works with me in the same airline. The years go by, the spirit stays exactly the same.
As usual, we run to the Ops Room and quickly talk about what’s happening. All the laziness? Gone.
A fishing vessel called “Desterrado” was sinking with eight souls on board, some twenty nautical miles between the Cabo Espichel and the Cabo da Roca.
Emergency vest, “may-west”, helmet on our hand and a quick race to the helicopter, always loyal and silently set on its usual spot. The EH-101 Merlin that is assigned to the national alerts is usually always in the same position on the apron, which is the nearest to the helipad and with a clear and unobstructed path to it to minimize the time necessary to takeoff.
Coming with us on the helicopter was a Systems Operator that has more years of experience in the field than I had of living. A true “war machine”. He could guide us to a ship with his eyes closed.
The Rescue Swimmer is also a veteran. Like all the other Swimmers out there, he has balls made of steel and is the humblest of the humblest.
Our nurse, also an expert, is one of the most practical guys I know. When anything fails, when our knee hurts like hell after a couple of ours of tennis and the pain is so intense that we can’t even walk, he always knows what’s wrong.
“Drink some water and that will go away”
“Dude, I can barely walk…”
“Does it hurt when you touch it?”
“Better not touch it, then!”
Flying with these guys is flying with full confidence in your crew. Exactly the way I like. Exactly the way it’s meant to be.
Takeoff and full speed ahead. We arrive at the location of the first coordinates provided to us. Nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada.
Clear weather, maximum visibility and not a vessel in sight.
“What the hell...”
We got in touch with the Aerial Command which promptly provides us with an updated set of coordinates. “Pedal to the metal” once again and we’re at the new operation area in less than ten minutes.
There it was. A fishing vessel, small as hell, struggling for its life, sailing to the South.
We get in touch through channel 16 (the maritime emergency frequency):
“Desterrado, this is RESCUE 23, search and rescue helicopter of the Portuguese Air Force”.
We get a reply from the ship’s captain. His voice, tense and nervous clearly shows the gravity of the situation.
“Rescue! My engine room is leaking. Our engine is practically under water.”
In the cockpit, we looked at each other silently. We know what’s on everyone’s mind: “it’s going to sink”. We initiate the coordination for the evacuation of the vessel through the radio. We need the crew wearing vests, in the water, at a safe distance. We need to know how many there are and what gear they have.
The reply was nothing we would ever expect to hear.
“Guys… We are not going to abandon our ship!”
“Captain…?! What do you mean?”
“She is leaking but she’s working. The engine is under water but functioning. I am going to try to take it to Sesimbra.”
“Captain, the operation will be much easier if we do a controlled extraction…”
I will never forget the words I heard next, the tough voice, roughened by years and years of working on the sea:
“Rescue, this is not a fishing vessel for me. This is my life.”
That shut us up.
It was his life. No, more than that. It was how he supported himself and his family. His ship. His soul. He was her captain and he was going to fight for her until the last breath – be it the fragile engine’s last breath, or his own.
We were used to see so many shipwrecks and so many lives lost at sea – often times unnecessarily – so we fought the decision to be a huge risk. But we accepted. It was not our decision to make and there was no person inside that helicopter that did not have a deep respect for that captain’s call.
We stayed with them, like a wolf does when it escorts one of their own that is hurt. Always with them at low speed. Heading out to Sesimbra.
The navy corvette Afonso Cerqueira was already on its way to our position to relieve us and provide the Desterrado with a precious cargo: a water pump. We passed the ship over to the Navy some forty minutes after our first contact. Those eight men, fighting for the life of their ship, were in very good hands.
While wishing them “good luck” on the radio, I remember thinking about the unfortunate destiny those men were about to face. Which engine is going to work fully submersed? What kind of fishing vessel sails leaking that amount of water? None. None whatsoever.
And then, once again, life proved me wrong.
It was night already when the Desterrado entered the port of Sesimbra. Hurt but alive. Those eight men did it. Their and their way of supporting their families. Their live.
I might have a beard. But it won’t be as tough as the one those guys, in that small vessel, in that afternoon.
Great job, captain!