Helo operators race to bring earthquake relief to Pakistan

 - October 30, 2006, 9:07 AM

The United Nations and the governments of India and Pakistan have characterized international response to the October 8 earthquake in the Kashmiri regions of Pakistan and India as “piecemeal” and “inadequate.” On several occasions since then, they have specifically requested helicopters, some of which are now in theater and flying hard. However, as winter sets in, hundreds of remote settlements affected by the disaster have yet even to be reached.

The two countries have set aside their long-running border dispute and devoted all their resources to clearing roads and restoring communications. But the need for international aid was obvious from the start and, as the world has seen in the aftermath of other disasters this year, helicopters were key to getting relief in and casualties out.

In addition to military rotorcraft and their crews contributed by individual countries and (uniquely) NATO, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) chartered commercial helicopters from about a dozen operators, including Belgium’s Skytech, to support its medical efforts in the disaster zone.

Skytech CEO Thierry Lakahinsky told AIN that it currently has one Mil Mi-8T and a Mil Mi-17 flying in the Pakistani sector of the disaster area and, at press time, was about to dispatch another Mi-17 from Tiblisi, Georgia, where it had been supporting oil exploration efforts.

A long-delayed Mi-26 from Russia’s Emercom disaster management agency was expected to join them at press time, while another of the huge machines remains grounded in Peshawar, reportedly because of a funding issue.

Food and Medical Aid Needed

Skytech employees have also been assisting the ICRC in managing its fleet–two SA330J Pumas, four Mi-17s and the Mi-8–by assembling payloads and coordinating the flying program. Lakahinsky said, “After the earthquake happened, the ICRC contacted us and we were able to respond with the two aircraft initially. They wanted the Mi-8 to carry out medevacs and the -17 for sling work. Unfortunately, a month later, we are still flying only internal loads…and have not been able to start delivering the much bigger external loads of food and winter protection that they now urgently need.”

Said Lakahinsky, “If the situation continues like this, I fear that the death toll will climb above the 100,000 mark, even before the winter properly takes hold. Certainly the loss of life already compares with that suffered after last December’s tsunami in southeast Asia, where the climate is so much more benign.”

The Skytech team reports no problem with logistics; the Pakistani Army has been friendly and helpful, the fuel is fine and they are entirely self-contained from a maintenance point of view. The team’s base is about 25 miles north of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The machines are each flying for five to six hours a day, at altitudes approaching nearly 6,000 feet. In a bid to attract earlier attention from the crews, some of the villages have cleared rudimentary helipads for the helicopters, but the crews have to be methodical.

“There are so many villages and hamlets. A full month after the earthquake we visited one for the first time, and there are many more that have yet to see any relief.

“Our internal load capacities may be relatively small–about a ton for the Mi-8 and two for the Mi-17–but they still take a long time to unload by hand. We have to land and shut down the rotors at the end of each sector but, despite this, we have to believe we are making progress. We do need more machines, however, and, without doubt, we have to start moving those external loads soon.”

Inevitably, it all comes down to money. “If we had more helicopters we could finish the medevac phase and get the heated tents, clothing and food to where they are needed most of all. These people had precious little to start with; now they have nothing and, unless we help them get the aid they need, many more will die this winter.”