Type 10 helicopter – Emergency rescuer

When after the Second World War the helicopter began to make a breakthrough and then really showed its value during the Korean War, the degree of interest shown by the Swedish Air Force was very limited, at the least. Instead the focus was on military tasking which severely limited the projected use of helicopters.

Both the army and the navy each discovered different uses and advantages of the helicopter in respective military tasks. So it was that the Air Force was very skeptical to start with and the Navy instead began to experiment with helicopters. However the Army did at least begin to collaborate with the Ostermans Aero Company in the use of helicopters in Northern Sweden’s forests and marshes. However it was the Navy that first acquired its own helicopters, in the form of the large twin rotor Type 1, soon supplemented by the 5-seat Type 2 in conjunction with the Army.

By the early 1960s the Swedish Air Force had woken up to the realization that helicopters could be a tool for rescuing pilots who had been forced to abandon their aircraft. This brought about orders for what became helicopters Type 3 and Type 4, but the first machines taken into service while waiting for these were two Type 1s, entering service in 1962. These were transferred to the Navy in 1964. At almost the same time the Type 3 was procured as a rescue helicopter within the Air Force Rescue Groups.

While the Type 3s were intended to be a localised rescue resource for individual air flotillas, the large twin rotor Type 4 would be a regional resource thanks to its greater operating range.

Replacement sought

Although the Type 4 was an extremely useful machine, the Swedish Armed Forces began in the mid-1980s to search for a successor. The choice fell on the AS332 Super Puma, as it was called. The first ten were delivered between 1988 and 1991. After this, a further two machines were procured to replace the smaller Swedish Armed Forces Air Rescue Group Type 3 and Type 9.

A Type 10 of the Swedish Armed Forces Air Rescue Group being serviced. Photograph: The Swedish Air Force Museum

The specification was for a machine that could spend up to 1 hour to get to site, another hour searching and a further 1 hour to return to base, yet still have enough fuel for a further 30 minutes flying. In addition, it should be possible to be able to rescue at least two people at a time. The Super Puma met these requirements, even though there were some who preferred the American Black Hawk. It would turn out that the Black Hawk would get a second chance, but that is another story.

The Super Pumas were delivered between 1988 and 1992. The first two went to Norrbotten’s F21 Wing near Luleå and were a simplified version, intended to be used for training and operational testing. Later, they were updated to the same standard as the others. Altogether 12 Type 10s were procured and placed at a number of Wing bases around Sweden. The Type 10 meant a major technical advance in Swedish military helicopters.

To start with, these helicopters flew with a crew of four; two pilots, a flight engineer and a rescue swimmer. However it was soon found that this was too few to be able to utilise all the helicopter’s abilities to the full. In order to extend its capabilities the helicopter was equipped with an operator’s position for a navigator, just as had been done for the Type 4.

The Helicopter Wing takes over and tragedy strikes

In 1998 there was a major change in the Swedish military helicopter story. The Army and Navy air groups were withdrawn and all helicopter operations came under a new Swedish Armed Forces establishment, the Helicopter Wing. This unit inherited all the helicopter types that had been part of the Defence Forces, including the Type 10. This was all part of a major reorganization of the Swedish defensive system that would lead to a considerably reduced force, since it coincided with a series of defence cuts over several years that were not concluded until 2016.

It transpired that it was this new organisation that fell victim to a pair of tragic accidents that befell Type 10 helicopters.

It was the rescuers who paid the ultimate price

On the morning of August 10th the Tarfala hill station, Kebnekaise asked for military assistance. Two mountain climbers had been missing at Kebnekaise since August 8th. A Super Puma from 21 Wing at Luleå arrived. The weather at the time was bad and the area where the climbers were thought to be was covered in cloud. Searching continued on foot, while the helicopter stood by at the Tarfala station. The helicopter crew had been busy all day, and needed to rest.

Late in the evening came reports from the rescue team that the climbers had been found. One of them was elderly and in poor condition so during the evening and into the night the helicopter crew was contacted and asked if they could try to collect the unwell person. So when the wind eased and the weather began to clear it was decided to make the attempt. The helicopter took off at 01:30 and flew towards Kaskasapakte, with its searchlight lit. Although the weather had improved it was still poor.

This was when disaster struck. At 01:36 the ground rescuers saw how the helicopter flew very close to the mountainside and the main rotor struck it, about 25 metres from their position. It then veered away from the mountainside but then struck once more a dozen or so metres lower down, to then fall a further 50 metres lower and explode in a sea of flame. The three crew died instantly. Later, a rescue helicopter from Norway managed to pick up the mountain climbers. An accident investigation began, that could not find any mechanical fault with the helicopter. However the visibility had been very poor, perhaps worse than the crew had expected when they set off. The choice of route may have made the situation worse. Another factor was that the crew must have been quite exhausted when they started what was to be their last flight. They had flown from Luleå to the Kebnekaise area and after that had carried out supporting transport, so they needed their rest.

This meant that they cannot have rested much by the time they were repeatedly contacted during the evening and night with requests to attempt a rescue flight. Far from their base and their commanding officer, the crew were forced to decide themselves. It is well known that stress and exhaustion affect judgement as well as reaction time and perception ability even in the most well trained personnel. Their job was to save life, and the combination of repeated appeals for help and judgement affected by tiredness could have led them to the fateful decision that perhaps was not completely correct. Their exhaustion would then have an effect on the whole of the mission they had undertaken.

With hindsight it may perhaps be seen as strange that they actually departed. However taking into consideration that although they were exhausted yet knew that an injured person needed their help, perhaps it is not so remarkable. Their task was to help others and save life, and to repeatedly deny that help could have weighed on their conscience. We shall never know for sure, but we can be fairly certain that an important part of their motivation was that they wanted to come to the rescue of someone in need.

The subsequent Swedish Accident Investigation Authority report included 11 recommendations, among others calling for improvements in crew co-operation. The accident at Kaskasapakte remains as one of the most tragic memories in which those who intended to save lives of others lost their own instead.

Rörö island

Three years later another Type 10 helicopter accident took place, this time next to the island of Rörö, outside Gothenburg.

On the evening of the 18th of November 2003 the lifeboat Märta Collin operated by the Svenska Sjöräddningssällskapet (the Swedish Sea Rescue Society) was carrying out an exercise with a Type 10 helicopter off Rörö, near Gothenburg.

A first practice session took place, after which the helicopter called the Märta Collin to ask for another session after the helicopter had refuelled and changed to another crew. After they had done this, and picked up a new National Service rescue swimmer student the helicopter took off and started to fly towards Rörö. The last radio contact with the Säve helicopter base took place at 18:37.

The crew of the Märta Collin saw a diffuse light moving in front of them, which then disappeared, and then a little later noticed a bright light that moved from left to right at a steep angle down to sea level. The light then disappeared and was followed by a muffled bang. The lifeboat hurried immediately in that direction to the rescue, and found the rescue swimmer floating in the water close to a large piece of wreckage. Out of the total crew of 7, he was the only survivor. While rescuing the swimmer, the Märta Collin called to the central rescue organisation (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre – MRCC) “Sweden Rescue”. The time was then 18:44.

The trainee rescue swimmer had lost his memory from moments before the crash. The last thing he could remember was that one of the two turbine engines had ”pumped” and that the helicopter acted as if it had entered an air pocket. However nothing seemed to have bothered the rest of the crew at that time.

The Swedish Accident Investigation Authority report could not provide any clear answers. No technical faults could be found, but the report indicated that a contributing factor could have been extensive stress and uncertainty in respect of both procedures and the future prospects, both for the Swedish Defence Forces in general and at a personal level. In just the same way as exhaustion, stress can negatively affect even well-trained and experienced people exposed to a critical situation.

Looking a little deeper, the cause could be said to be grounded in the management of the new organisation missing the need to actively create common procedures and structures for the new operations, which created a constant underlying unease and stress affecting many individuals within the organisation.

No fault of the helicopter

Despite the accidents, the Type 10 helicopter did not gain a bad reputation among those who flew and worked with them. Detailed inspections and checks caught technical problems before they became too extensive, and once the organizational problems had been solved there were no further accidents, either. The more stringent requirements set by the military on inspection and maintenance must have had the desired effect. Rather it was stealthy causes such as tiredness and long-term stress that finally led to mistakes being made without the individuals concerned being held to blame.

Type 10 helicopters also had characteristics that that made them well adapted to be rescue helicopters, and these were especially useful in many rescue missions for which they were employed, in particular the absolutely largest rescue operation in Swedish history.

Estonia Mayday

During the night of 28th September 1994 the passenger and car ferry M/S Estonia was en route from Tallin in Estonia eastbound to Sweden. This would turn out to be the ferry’s final journey. She sank very rapidly when the ship’s bow visor, protecting the entrance to the car deck, broke off, probably at about 01:00. That was when a crew member heard a metallic bang in the area of the bow and called for an officer, but before they got to the car deck to see what was wrong, the ship was flooding rapidly. At 01:22 Estonia’s captain transmitted an emergency message over the radio including the word “Mayday”, meaning a ship in distress. This was however the last that was heard from the ferry, which sank with frightening speed. The water was icy cold and officially there were 989 souls on board, of whom 852 died. 501 of the deceased were Swedish.

Other vessels rushed to the location from several directions, as also did rescue helicopters. The first of the latter to arrive was Finland’s maritime rescue helicopter, Super-Puma OH-HVG which arrived at 03:05 and rescued a total of 37 people from the chilly water. Swedish helicopters were also called for and at 02:50 Type 10 H97 took off from the Swedish Air Force base at Visby. At about the same time Type 10 H99, was notified. At that time H99 was on a different rescue mission south of Öland. It would have to refuel before being able to fly to the accident location. Accompanying the crew of H97 was navigator Lars Flemström.

”There has been a lot of discussion about what went wrong that night, including for the rescue helicopters. However that isn’t the whole truth. We were the first Swedish helicopter to arrive on scene and we were able to immediately start rescuing survivors. The Type 10 had a special system that during rescue operations could be controlled from the side door where the winch was located. The helicopter hovered directly above the survivor and was controlled by a joystick from the doorway. This meant that we could remain in a steady hover above the survivor, even though the pilot could not see directly beneath. The winch operator could however, watch the rescue swimmer’s descent and ensure that he could come down precisely next to the survivor.”

Helicopter H97 arrived, with other helicopters, at the accident site at 03:50 after spending an hour flying across the Baltic Sea. The ability to control the helicopter from the winching station meant that the rescue swimmer was able to work for longer periods. Sometimes other types of helicopter had to hover a short distance away so that the pilot could keep an eye on the survivor, so that the rescue swimmer would need to swim 20 or 30 metres to reach them. The fierce wind and high waves definitely tired their rescue swimmers. However when the other H97 crew members asked their rescue swimmer if he could pick up more, he replied that it would not be any problem.

The ability to be able to stay and pick up as many as possible was something that could make the difference between life and death for the victims. The cold water chilled many who, although kept afloat by their life vests, were from the start inadequately clothed when they had to hurriedly escape from the sinking vessel. Most of those who died that night froze to death, so the time factor was critical.

Helicopter H97 and its crew rescued 15 people that night, and was the Swedish helicopter that saved the largest number. Her sister helicopter H99 saved a further 9 after quickly refuelling at Visby. By on the one hand being among the first helicopters on scene, and also being able to place their rescue swimmers precisely where needed, thereby saving the swimmer’s energy, were success factors.

“Certainly much went wrong that night, but when we as a crew met afterwards and discussed the whole event we came to the conclusion that our particular efforts had been successful,” Lars Flemström says.

Out of those who survived the catastrophe, 109 of the 137 who were saved were rescued by the more than 26 helicopters that rushed to the accident scene. Of these 109, 73 were saved by various Finnish and Swedish Super Puma helicopters. The Super Puma showed its true worth and demonstrated that it was a first class rescue helicopter and a true saviour in need.