Military

More Heroes Ahead

By James T. McKenna | May 1, 2008

Search and Rescue

Recent years have brought a broadening of the field of heroism in helicopters.

AgustaWestland’s AW139 is a case in point. It is still relatively new to the field. But its operators, such as the Italian operator Air Green in the Alps and the United Arab Emirates’ air force, have performed many rescues with it. Last month, an AW139 operated by CHC Helicopters flew its first rescue mission within hours of going into service for the U.K. Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

April also saw the end of the first combat tour of the Bell Helicopter/Boeing V-22 with the U.S. Marine Corps. Its missions in Iraq’s Al Anbar province included medevac. It is only a matter of time before the rescue exploits of Osprey crews prompt us to speak of heroism not in helicopters but in rotorcraft.

This year’s Helicopter Heroism Award ceremony — held at our new Search & Rescue Summit — will honor rescue crews from three different operator categories.

Back in February, the S-92 joined the long line of Sikorsky Aircraft helicopters completing daring rescues. Also operated by CHC under contract to the U.K. coast guard, it and its crew overcame winds gusting to 70 kt and a severe sea state to pull 14 fishermen from a Spanish trawler aground at the base of steep cliffs.

Its pilot recalled that was one of the most hazardous operations she’d ever flown, which brings up another notable aspect of that mission: it was commanded by a woman. Capt. Liz Forsyth is a former Royal Air Force search and rescue pilot.

On March 7, a comrade of hers, RAF Flight Lt. Michelle Goodman, became the first woman awarded the U.K. Distinguished Flying Cross. She was honored for flying her Merlin under intense fire to rescue a wounded trooper in the Iraqi city of Basra in June 2007.

This is not to imply that these were the first rescue missions commanded by women or the first of note flown by women. Far from it. What is noteworthy, to us, is the prospect that commanders of that gender may soon be common in daring rescues.

We normally would take note of these developments, as each is newsworthy in its own right. We especially note them now because such acts of daring, skill, and potential sacrifice are on our minds at Rotor & Wing. Soon, we will present our annual Helicopter Heroism Award. That means it is time again to solicit your suggestions on the aircrews you consider most deserving of that distinction.

For more than 40 years, the Helicopter Heroism Award has honored crews who tested the limits of their skill and courage and the performance of their aircraft to save others, often putting their own lives at risk in the process. I’ve only been involved in selecting four winning crews to date, but I’ve already learned that the process of selecting the most deserving nominees can pose a dilemma. This is confirmed by my predecessors as editor-in-chief and others with more experience at that task than me.

At times, the winning nominee seems evident. More often, the choice is a tough one among equally deserving crews. Each year, we and our judges wrestle as well with a big question: how do we rightfully recognize crewmembers thrust into a rescue situation by circumstance when other nominees include crews whose daily mission includes performing rescues. A related question is how do we rate the feats of civil rescue crews against those of performing rescues in combat.

We’ve decided to simplify our task and broaden our honors as the field of helicopter heroism has broadened. This year we will honor four rescue crews by presenting awards to ones in three different categories: public service, military, and commercial/corporate/private operations. Of all the crews nominated, the one performing the most remarkable rescue, regardless of the type of operation involved, will be presented with the Helicopter Heroism Award.

These honors will be presented at an awards luncheon during R&W’s Search and Rescue Summit on Sept. 18. This day-long roundtable in the Washington area will bring together a group of experts to discuss the lessons learned in SAR operations since the Boxing Day tsunami killed hundreds of thousands around the Indian Ocean in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. One of its sessions will review the latest in SAR technologies, techniques, and equipment.

This year’s awards will cover rescues performed from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2007 anywhere in the world. Starting this month, you can submit nominations for the awards at www.rotorandwing.com or by e-mail to me at jmckenna@accessintel.com. (The deadline for nominations is Aug. 1, 2008.) Check our Web site regularly for information on all nominees and for more details on the SAR Summit.

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