91 People Saved in 20 Hours

Government Flying Service - The 3 and 4 August 2006 are dates that will be forever remembered in the history of the GFS. Over these two days, the Hong Kong-based operator rescued 91 people in extremely difficult conditions, which also put the rescue teams at risk.


During the rescue mission, the Super Puma once again proved its exceptional operational capacities: endurance, performance levels, long range and large cabin space.

On 3 August 2006, at around ten in the morning, a force 3 typhoon struck the South China Sea, 170 nautical miles to the south west of Hong Kong. At 10:18 am, the crew of an AS332 L2 Super Puma readied themselves for takeoff in the GFS command and control center.
Their mission was to save 23 people on board a survival vessel, which was adrift close to the eye of the typhoon.

Time was tight… and few airplanes could land or take-off at Hong Kong International Airport because of the awful weather conditions.
But that did not stop the AS332 L2 Super Puma from taking to the skies, although the flight out to the vessel was extremely difficult due to the 170 km/h winds, the rain and the very low clouds, which reduced the visibility to almost zero.

To ensure crew safety, the pilot therefore flew in IFR(1) mode. The rescue vessel was located on the radar but the visibility was so poor that the pilot could barely make it out by eyes.
Nevertheless, the 23 people were quickly hoisted to safety thanks to the exceptional teamwork of the pilot and hoist operators. With everybody safely on board, the helicopter headed back to Hong Kong at 150 knots.

An Even More Dangerous Mission…
At 1:30 pm, the GFS picked up another Mayday call: 68 people returning from an oil platform were in grave danger. Captain Michael Chan, the Head of Operations at the GFS and an AS332 L2 Super Puma pilot, described the rescue mission: “When I got to the scene, I saw that the barge carrying the 68 people was letting in water on all sides and a MOC (Chinese Ministry of Communications) rescue launch nearby.

The MOC rescue launch was trying to tow the barge to the shore but the cable snapped in the typhoon, leaving the barge drifting on its own without power. We were asked to hoist the people from the ship in distress to the MOC rescue launch but, given the weather conditions, we decided this was much too risky and time consuming. We also knew that the fate of those people was in our hands.
I decided to keep hovering by the barge while my crew member tried to open the cabin door, which was blocked by a 72 knot wind. Subsequently when one of the hoist operators landed on the boat, he was in constant danger of losing his balance and being swept away by the 10 meter high waves.
The barge was pitching dangerously but we managed to hoist up the people from the ship two by two: the operation was hell for the two hoist operators. When we had 23 people on board the helicopter, the maximum load authorized for the Super Puma, we should have turned back for Hong Kong.
But, I said to myself that we had to get the maximum number of people on board because there was no guarantee that another helicopter would make it out there. We therefore re-performed the load calculation by assigning 60 kg – and not 77 kg – to each person. This allowed us to hoist up a few more people. With 32 passengers on board, including the crew, I decided to head back as there was no more room in the cabin.

During the return flight, the wind continued to gust at 200 km/h but we landed safe and sound in Hong Kong after nearly three hours of perilous mission. The Super Puma once again proved its exceptional capabilities during this operation: an ability to shrug off all difficulties, unbeatable range and performances in this situation, and a vast cabin, which allowed us to transport 32 people in one go!”

The End Was Still Not in Sight…
Alongside this mission, at about 3 pm, a second AS332 L2 Super Puma took off to bring back the people who were still stuck on the boat. However, because of the encroaching night, only another 28 of them could be brought back to dry land that day, and the others had to wait for a third rotation the next morning.

Vanessa Schmidt-Creton

(1) Instrument Flight Rules
(2) Chinese Minister of Communications


Between the 1st of May and 31 July 2006, Eurocopter performed retrofits on two Super Puma AS332s operated by GFS to install cockpit and cabin air conditioning systems. “We are particularly pleased with the work,” said Captain Brian Butt, controller of GFS. “The downtime on the machines was much shorter than we expected – they finished a full month ahead of time.”

To insure the success of the operation, Eurocopter sent a team of seven employees (including three from ESEA, the company’s subsidiary in Singapore) to Hong-Kong. But the success of the mission was also made possible thanks to flawless pre-planning, which required the participation of many different sectors at Eurocopter.
The commitment of so many different teams meant that the Eurocopter staff in Hong Kong had all the tools it needed at its fingertips. And luckily they did: the Super Pumas were used intensively for rescue operations on 3 and 4 August 2006 (see article).

Captain Brian Butt, Controller at the GFS

© Eurocopter / G. Deulin

“This is the first time in the history of the GFS that we have rescued 91 people in 20 hours in weather conditions that were so difficult that our crews put their lives at risk. This is also the first time that a Super Puma has transported 32 people in one, single rotation. In my mind, this success is inextricably linked to the sterling teamwork of the pilots and crews who took off to rescue the stranded people, the technicians who prepared the helicopters, and the administrative staff – who are never normally involved in such an operation – who prepared meals, blankets and clothing for the victims. We also owe this success to the trust we had in the aircraft and the men who carried out this mission. Without this trust and teamwork, we would never have pulled off such a feat. We were very moved by the gratitude of the Chinese government, notably President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and the MOC Vice Minister Huang Xianyao, without forgetting the people we saved over those fateful days. There were some people among them who thought they would never see their loved ones again. We pulled out all the stops to save their lives.”