Decades of rescue work from mountains to sea
A crew of five, including pilots and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), are getting ready to fly in a blue rescue helicopter from the Chiayi Air Force Base in Southern Taiwan to rescue the people in need.
They are members of the Air Rescue Group, a search-and-rescue group under the Air Force.
From the mountains to the sea, day or night, they are dispatched to rescue people. Since its establishment in 1954, the Air Rescue Group has been relentless in delivering emergency relief to both locals and foreigners.
Over the past 61 years, the group has been tasked with search and rescue missions when severe typhoons strike Taiwan, and when accidents occur in the mountains or at sea.
For example, the group has been active in search and rescue efforts in the wake of major disasters in Taiwan in recent years, including Typhoon Morakot in 2009 that caused massive devastation, and a plane crash in outlying Penghu County in July 2014 that killed 49 people.
The group’s work also includes air ambulance services taking injured people from Taiwan’s outlying islands to receive further treatment at hospitals on Taiwan proper.
Part of its work is to airlift people suffering sudden illness while in the mountains or on fishing boats operating in the seas around Taiwan and to provide medical care during the flight.
Some of the tasks are similar to those carried out by the National Airborne Service Corps under the Ministry of the Interior, but the Air Rescue Group “is the only one in the military that can conduct airlifting missions during nighttime,” said Col. Chen Mei-huang, head of the group.
The group is also capable of flying further to conduct maritime rescue missions, he told CNA.
One example was last year, when the 2,700-ton RV Ocean Researcher 5 sank off the outlying county of Penghu in stormy weather on the night of Oct. 10, he said.
Shortly after the accident, Air Rescue Group members were dispatched aboard EC225 and S-70C helicopters to search for and rescue the people from the ship.
Airlifting people at night is not easy, partly due to poor visibility. Rescue efforts can be further hampered and made even more dangerous in bad weather conditions.
To meet the demands of the rescue work, regular training is key to maintaining and improving the group’s rescue abilities, said Chen, a pilot who has been with the group for nearly 20 years.
“We put great emphasis on our training,” he said, adding that maintaining availability of the group’s aircraft is equally important.
Group members have to undergo regular training missions in waters off Taiwan’s coast to maintain their skills in night rescues, said the 44-year-old military pilot.
Each training mission sees a unit of five members — pilot, co pilot, two EMTs and a crew chief — carry out a simulated rescue mission together “to improve coordination between pilots and other crew members while conducting an actual rescue mission,” Chen said.
To bolster the group’s maritime rescue abilities, he expressed hope for cooperation with the Coast Guard to practice simulated rescues at sea in the future, although further discussion will be needed on this issue, he said.
Over the past decades, the group has frequently been dispatched to rescue fishermen from boats in the waters surrounding Taiwan.
One of the most urgent missions occurred in July 2002, when Typhoon Nakri hit Taiwan. At that time, the group’s members were sent to airlift several fishermen from a burning Kaohsiung registered boat in waters off the southern port city of Kaohsiung.
The Coast Guard and the National Airborne Service Corps also joined the rescue effort, in which most of the 133 Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen on the boat were saved.
“Our rescues are not limited to local fishing boats,” Chen said. “We will also be deployed to rescue foreign fishing boats in the event of emergency.”
Another major part of the group’s work is to help people suffering sudden illness while in the mountains.
One impressive thing for Chen was when a Japanese tourist visited the group’s base in Chiayi to present the group members with a small chunk of decorative granite to express his gratitude. The man had been rescued by the group when he took ill while climbing Qilaishan in central Taiwan in August 1998.
“We do not ask for rewards in return for our work, but his move really warmed our hearts,” Chen recalled.
The Air Rescue Group currently has two types of rescue aircraft in its fleet: the S-70C and the EC225. Along with a total of 19 helicopters, there are about 180 members of the group, Chen said.
87 Rescue Missions Last Year
The group conducted a total of 87 rescue missions in 2014, saving 125 people. In the first half of 2015, it carried out 54 missions, saving six people.
Chen, who took over as the group’s head late last year, said that the top priority is to ensure the safety of all group members when they conduct a mission.
He admitted that “the most difficult is to decide to abort a mission” when weather conditions are too adverse. He encourages the members to keep in mind that they can come back when the weather improves; otherwise, they could not save people and could even put their own lives in danger.
2015 marks the 61st anniversary of the group, and it has designated the year as “guardian year,” reflecting its devotion to being a guardian for the people of Taiwan.
“I expect each member of our group to keep improving their abilities to ensure their own safety while on rescue missions,” he said. “That will allow them to ‘guard’ those who need to be rescued.”
A female R.O.C. Air Force rescuer, Lo Hsiu-wen, descends from a helicopter during a drill in Chiayi, yesterday. Lo is currently the only woman in her rescue team.