Military, Public Service, Training

Search and Rescue: Extreme Maritime Challenges

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | April 24, 2014

S-70B Seahawk launches as a refueling probe is transferred while both ships are deployed in search of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Photo courtesy of RAN

Two recent tragic incidents have revealed the challenges of searching for, and rescuing people from, aircraft or vessels that get into difficulties in the maritime environment.

In the case of Malaysian Airlines MH370, the challenge was actually tracking and locating where it had gone after it ‘disappeared’ off its scheduled flight path with 227 passengers and 12 crew onboard. The slowness of tracing the likely path of the aircraft, once the transponder had been switched off, left many professionals mystified as to how this occurred – losing an airliner belonging to a major airline.


The mystery deepened when it was revealed that Inmarsat’s onboard satellite communications systems had been ‘pinging’ satellites for several hours after the transponder was switched off. After verifying the ‘true’ track of the aircraft, the technology providers sent the information to the airline which then allowed search forces to be guided into the southern Indian Ocean where, at time of writing, over six weeks after its disappearance the precise location of the aircraft has still not been verified.

The search for MH370 is now the most expensive search and recovery operation (as there seems to be nobody to rescue) in history. The search now moves into an underwater phase with the deployment of the U.S. Navy’s Bluefin 21 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV),which can scan the seabed, albeit at a maximum of 150 meters across.

The sinking of the Republic of Korea ferry Sewol, again at time of writing less than a week after the incident, seems to have claimed hundreds of lives many of whom are school children.

Current reports indicate that out of the 475 people onboard, 339 were students and teachers. To date only 174 have been rescued.

Strong currents have been reported by divers on the scene and this together with the temperature of the water 12 degrees C (54 degrees F), appears to be one of the reasons why the captain of the ferry broadcast messages stating that people should remain where they were – many of whom were inside the vessel. The children onboard would likely have followed the advice given to them by adults, perhaps one of the reasons why more people did not make their way outside the ship.

The ferry was on a well-travelled route from the main port at Incheon to Jeju Island, a well-known resort to the south of the mainland. While not speculating on the reasons for the sinking, it is known through the release of a transcription of conversations between the ferry’s bridge and the Korean Coast Guard that the ship had begun taking on water by 9:00 am on April 16. By 9:30 am the ferry had a 60-degree list with passengers beginning to be rescued by small boats. However, the Korean Coast Guard has released the transcription of radio conversations between Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center (VTS) on Jindo island and the ferry during the crucial period in the emergency after 9:00 am.

It shows that despite the rapidly sinking ferry, there were still major concerns onboard about advising passengers to abandon the ship and get into the sea with the hope that surrounding ships would then be able to rescue them.


9:25 a.m. JINDO VTS: The evacuation of people on board Sewol ferry... the captain should make a decision about evacuating them. We don’t know the situation there. The captain should make the final decision and decide quickly whether to evacuate passengers or not.


9:26 a.m. SEWOL: I’m not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?

JINDO VTS: Patrol boats will be there in less than 10 minutes.

SEWOL: In 10 minutes?


By 9:38am there was no more communication with the ferry and by the time the first helicopter rescue occurred around 9:45am, the ferry had rolled over and people were on and around the upturned hull.

Tiger75, an S-70B-2 Seahawk, launches to port off HMAS Toowoomba, to conduct a surface search as part of the Flight MH370 recovery effort. Photo courtesy Australian RAN

An early summary of this disaster reveals: the ferry was traveling a known route; weather conditions were not extreme or abnormal; the ferry had good communications with the authorities; less than an hour passed between the declaration of an emergency and the ferry capsizing with the superstructure fully emerged into the water; instructions were issued for people to remain where they were in the ship during critical periods; the location was not remote and rescue service and other vessels were quickly on the scene but did not have an opportunity to rescue the majority of the passengers for reasons that are still emerging.


Cruising in the Arctic: the SAR Challenge

The Sewol ferry disaster illustrates just how quickly an emergency can escalate into a full search and rescue (SAR) recovery operation even in benign conditions and with emergency rescue services and other vessels willing to assist relatively close at hand.

Less than a week earlier, several speakers at IQPC’s Search and Rescue Europe conference (April 8-9) held in Copenhagen, Denmark, revealed their concerns about the number of vessels entering the polar circle in the Arctic, particularly cruise ships now able to venture further north than ever before due to the receding polar ice sheet.

Most of the SAR specialists present with responsibility for the region agreed that it is only a matter of when, not if, an accident occurs that will place many lives, possibly thousands, in grave danger.

Maj. Gen. Stig Nielsen, commander, Arctic Command of the Royal Danish Defence Force, said the increasing incursion of cruise ships around Greenland, a few with the capacity to carry over 3,000 passengers and crew, posed a major challenge in keeping them safe, particularly as most of the vessels were not ice protected and were entering waters that have still not been properly mapped. Weather was also going to be a crucial factor in an emergency and Nelson was quick to illustrate how it could cause an emergency, or hamper the rescue services: “We have 1,900 low pressures in a year coming over the area. With climate change the ice is pulling back. The wind (speeds) are higher, we are seeing wave heights we haven’t seen before – some up to 30 meters in the Denmark Strait. It is a very hostile environment.”

“No matter what precautions, someday there will be an accident,” he predicted. However, agreements with the cruise ship operators now mean that there is the ability to monitor their position virtually continuously to look out for potential dangers in advance.

The official tourist site of Greenland is eager to encourage people to join such cruises. On its website,, it builds up expectation of sailing into potentially dangerous waters: “Those traveling by sea enjoy sailing along Greenland’s coasts to see icebergs of different shapes and sizes; from small transparent ice floes to colossal 100-meter-high (330-foot-high) icebergs. Do not forget that you only see about one tenth of the iceberg above the surface of the water – the rest has to be left to your imagination.”

The challenge to SAR agencies would be rescuing a volume of people from such a hostile environment. Nielsen said that with a population of 57,000, mainly on the southwest side of Greenland, there were only two police helicopters with 2.2 million square kilometers to cover. In Denmark we have three helicopters to cover an area 50 times smaller.” Any other helicopter support would have to come from naval ships that would be unlikely to be in the vicinity. But anyone having to enter the water would have minutes, not hours, to be rescued. Compared to the waters around the Korean ferry which has a temperature of 12 degrees C (54 degrees F) with around 90 minutes before hypothermia set in, the waters off Greenland are less than 0 degrees C (32 degrees F) so hypothermia begins to set in almost immediately.

Rear Admiral Georg Larusson, director general, Icelandic Coast Guard, shared Nielson’s fears. “With new Polar shipping routes through the Arctic, and more cruise ships and oil and gas tankers, there is far more traffic than before.” Larusson said that the number of cruise ship passengers to Iceland had increased 300 percent in the last three years.

The Coast Guard currently operate three AS332-L1 Super Pumas, two of which are leased. In 2013 they flew 185 missions, 54 of which were over the sea. The mission breakdown was: SAR 39 percent, HEMS 46 percent and “Other” 15 percent. Larusson said that the influx of tourists had resulted in an increase in the number of missions, some due to the fact that people were not aware of how quickly the environment could turn against them. There is a plan to evaluate these helicopter operations with the aim of securing three to four new helicopters between 2018-2020.

Royal Australian Navy S-70B-2 Seahawk on the tarmac at RAAF Base. Photo courtesy of RAAF

One of the points made during the conference was that in such extreme circumstances, an international rescue plan would be coordinated. That would almost certainly involve the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement (formally the Agreement on Cooperation for Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic), an international treaty that came into force on Jan. 19, 2013, after it had been ratified by each of the eight signatory states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.). The agreement has established areas of primary SAR responsibility and has overcome the sensitive issue of territorial claims with the provision that “the delimitation of search and rescue regions is not related to and shall not prejudice the delimitation of any boundary between States or their sovereignty, sovereign rights or jurisdiction.”

One of the countries with experience of, and great exposure to, the Arctic is Canada. Lt. Col. Chris Conway, director of Air Requirements 2, Royal Canadian Air Force, revealed Canada places the Coast Guard as the lead agency in terms of maritime SAR. Given that, Canada had only four fixed-wing (three CC130 Hercules and one CCII Buffalo) and four rotary assets (CH149 Cormorants – versions of the AgustaWestland AW101) that are dedicated SAR assets for the whole geographical area of Canada.

Conway made the point that because of great distances within the Canadian geographic area, “we end up choosing an aerial fixed-wing delivery platform over a rotary wing recovery platform. The first point of response will most likely be fixed-wing.”

One of the national SAR problems is that the bulk of Canada does not have cell phone coverage so, unlike other countries such those in Europe, people needing rescue cannot get out their cell phone and make a call. It is also primarily land focused. He also made the point: “You can launch from southern Ontario in plus 25 degrees C and travel into minus 25 degrees.” He said that this drives the way in which Canada will respond to remote SAR missions. A fixed wing rapid delivery of men and equipment and then we will figure out the recovery after that.”

Nielson helped to illustrate the type of SAR emergencies that occur in the Greenland area, from people lost on the land to aircraft in distress and boats of various sizes in distress. “There are many hunters and fisherman in small boats who sometime sail alone. Most incidents in south and west are because that is where the people can get to and most are because encounters with ice. There were 348 people in distress 2013,” compared to 263 in 2012; 233 in 2011; and 199 in 2010].

He helped command the SAREX Greenland Sea exercise in 2013. Its aim was to train the SAR organizations of the eight Arctic Nations in a live exercise providing SAR cooperation training to all participants in a remote Arctic environment. It involved a search for, and evacuation of, a missing cruise ship. An extra element added in a pollution contamination factor.

“What did we learn?” asked Nielson. “That communications is always a problem, especially further north. The value of fixed-wing aircraft in the search phase and the recognition that satellites could be helpful. A common SAR log was needed.”

Tore Wangsfjord, director of the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Norway, summarized the difficulties of SAR operations in regions such as the Arctic. “Many incidents outside of range of SAR helicopters. We need to make arrangements to refuel them (off oil rigs, ships involved, etc.) for extended operations. That all takes time – which is the main challenge in the north. It may take 24 hours before you reach people in distress.”

Related: Search and Rescue News

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