“I was at home checking the weather situation when the alert went off,” continues Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste. “They quickly explained the situation to me: we knew it was a sailboat, we knew its location, but we weren’t sure exactly what the problem was. I suggested to CROSS that the helicopter be medically equipped and sent with the SMUR maritime team from the French Armed Forces Health Service. I quickly called my helicopter diver and we agreed that we should also take a second backup diver: the situation on the ship could be very complicated … “
By the time the emergency team had assembled and prepared, the plane was out of its hangar and ready to go. The procedure is well established: just 38 minutes after CROSS’s first phone call, NH90 Number 17, call sign Rescue Cyclone Victor, was in the air, heading west. On board were the pilot (also captain), the TACCO (tactical coordinator and co-pilot), a winch operator, two divers, a doctor and a nurse.
Rescue at sea of the NH90 of the French Navy
The helicopter crew watched the passengers of the Don Quijote board a life raft to be rescued by the winch cable.
A rough sea
“As soon as we took off we were faced with very strong headwinds. The NH90 was moving normally at an actual speed of 145 knots, but against the wind our ground speed was only 90 knots. Under the plane, in the darkness, you could see the sea getting rougher and rougher. It was clear to us that we were going to take up a challenge … “
Three or four nautical miles from Don Quijote, the sailboat’s distress beacon was picked up by the helicopter’s autoguiding system, which was able to head directly towards the ship. The situation encountered by the crew of the 33F is far from encouraging: the ship has lost its mast and is out of control. Positioned across the swell, it was regularly submerged by waves.
“We took a few minutes to analyze the situation. We felt that the loss of the mast was to our advantage, that it would facilitate the rescue operation. As soon as we started to try to winch the diver, we realized that the movements of the vessel were too chaotic, too fast. The distance between the Don Quijote and our helicopter fluctuated constantly between 15 and 45 m … The automatic hover pilot alarms went off several times … After a few minutes we raised the diver and backed up .. . “
The passengers of the Don Quixote understood what was happening: to be winched, they would have to abandon their ship and board the life raft.
“It was only when we saw them leave the ship that we realized that there were not two but six people to save”, remembers Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste, who added: “But the situation was already a little easier with the drifting raft. We brought down the diver who managed to gain a foothold on the ship. He was putting on the harness in first person when we saw a huge breaker arrive. He swept the raft off the back of the helicopter and overturned it. At this point, the winch cable stretched at such an angle that it suddenly broke. There was a loud crackle that echoed through the helicopter, like a gunshot, which made our blood run cold! Fortunately, it broke on the winch and the cable fell into the sea without hitting the rotor!
The situation was critical: the six survivors and the diver were now drifting in the water; night has fallen and the NH90 is unable to winch them. He can, however, still use his searchlight to help the diver assemble the crew of the Don Quixote. The rescue team then released their own liferaft, as close to the diver as possible. He grabbed it, inflated it, and finally managed to get everyone on board. It raised our hopes, but the game was far from over.
Saved by the Cayman!
“We managed to radio the diver and told him our winch was broken. It really shook him … We then explained to him that we were going back to Lanvéoc to change planes.
At the naval air base, everything was on deck: apart from the only helicopter on standby, all the squadron’s planes were in preparation and the crews were mobilized. No one knew what the rest of the night would bring …
When NH90 Number 17 touched down, Number 04 was waiting, ready to take off. The crew took a few minutes to catch their breath and assess the situation, before taking to the air.
Rescue at sea of the NH90 of the French Navy
With winds of 60 knots dangerously close to the maximum allowed by the flight envelope, it took 36 minutes for the NH90 helicopter to recover the seven occupants of the raft.
In the life raft, the diver took matters into his own hands. With 15 years of experience, his presence was decisive for the six Danes on board. In the meantime, a cargo ship has been hijacked to rescue them. The sea is too rough for him to intervene directly, but he stays nearby and transmits the precise position of the raft to the CROSS. The information was transmitted to the helicopter, which returned to the area a little over two hours after its departure.
It looked like the worst was over, but no … With winds of 60 knots dangerously close to the maximum allowed by the flight envelope, it took the helicopter 36 minutes to retrieve the seven occupants of the raft. The storm was so violent that the helipad at the Brest hospital was completely unusable. Shortly after 3 a.m., 4:30 a.m. after the launch of the mission, the NH90 returned to Lanvéoc, where the rest room of Naval Air Squadron 33F had been transformed into a treatment room.
That night, I was not sure that the mission could have been accomplished with an aircraft other than the NH90, ”concluded Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste. “Its power, its durability, its flight performance, everything came together to save the six people of the Don Quijote. “