Saturday, August 20, 2011

Aircraft accident response in Papua New Guinea

The cold air rushed through me as I peered over the edge, the clouds that once dominated the landscape had been kind enough to tender their resignation and the sun now took post high overhead. The adrenalin I once felt no longer there. My mind races back to that garage roof. Such a simple act of jumping off holding a tattered bed sheet had sent my adrenalin into overdrive, now it seems, it takes more, lots more for that adrenalin to come out and play.

I lean out, a little further, a bit more. I was now standing horizontal over the edge, my size 9 boots and a strap the only contact I had with the ramp.
I was facing vertical now, perfect I thought. I wonder what the passengers think of this, ‘another day at the office for a photographer’, I think not.

Two weeks before, I had just arranged to pick up a bike I’d been drooling over for a long time, A BMW 650 Dakar. One that would cart my well built frame across Australia from East to West, taking the Simpson Desert in its stride. The phone rang; I cringed as I looked at the caller ID, PRIVATE NUMBER. This is never a good thing as all work numbers come up with PRIVATE NUMBER.

I answer, ‘Hello, Corporal Guy Young speaking’, there is a pause. ‘Guy have you seen the news?’ The next I know I’m sitting on a HERC at 4 in the morning heading for a third world country I have visited a few times before. The first two visits I was fortunate enough to share with family sitting around me tonight.

On arrival into Port Moresby I got to work, as I had done that morning prior to take off from Richmond. The work was mundane but promised to build up into something more, but it was important work. A call from the Prime Minister's office confirmed the reason we had deployed. ‘The reason you are there is so that everyone knows we are there.’ A common reason for a lot of work we do, but straight from the PM's office?

After shooting, editing and transmitting to every network in Australia, we made base camp as best we could, with wireless internet and room service. It was tough but that’s why we were paid service allowance. ‘Two gateway burgers and a calamari and chips thanks…..charge it to the room’.

That night, as the light receded beyond the horizon, Australia’s largest military aircraft touched down on the expanse of runway stretching out in front of me. I let it roll out of shot. A crash zoom sees me following it’s twin front wheels as it bounces on the rough Papua New Guinea surface. This airfield was starting to show it’s age, as were it’s facilities, including it’s ‘new’ terminal building.

Wands are crossed, pulling this 77 and a half ton monster to a stop next to its smaller cousin, the C-130J Hercules. I keep rolling as the ramp lowers revealing its vital cargo. Their rotor blades folded back just inches from the roof.

The next few hours are a blur as I shoot, edit and transmit my third news release for the day. I collapse into my bed; the sheets grasp me as I fall into a deep sleep, waking only briefly as a shoe is thrown in my direction. Who said I didn’t snore.

The day is lit by a warm glow from the east, dawn hits. I grab my camera from the car and head for the nearest Black Hawk, hoping that the cloud base that swoops low over the Owen Stanley Ranges, and in particular the Kokoda Gap, had not yet woken from its slumber. ‘Can we get into the site this morning?’ I ask, ‘Reports from the site are it’s clear so we’re leaving in ten’ the pilot replied with a seasoned air of authority.

I jump into the cyclone seat, so apply named due to its position on the aircraft and the fact that the rotor disk creates such a violent but necessary vortex that swirls around and hits the aircraft body the hardest at the cyclone seat. Wind speeds can exceed 300km/hr, wrapping your cheeks around your ears and using your eye lids as a toupee.

The dual turbines spool up and the loadmaster jumps through the window and straps in. We lift off and head for the site. I had long ago abandoned the idea of finding anyone breathing, let along walking. I prepared myself the best way I knew how, put the camera to your eye and start filming.

As we neared the site I glanced at the altimeter, a pressure sensitive gauge designed for determining ones height above sea level, five thousand four hundred feet and climbing. The air had thinned but my well toned body automatically swallowed more to compensate. I loosened off my harness and leaned out to gain a better view, my eyelids strain again the cyclone forces. I make out the site high up on the side of a steep, rugged slope. My eyes are drawn to a small clearing; I make out what looks like a log raft sitting in the middle of the clearing, locals swarming around it. I strain to make it out then it hits me. The locals have cut a clearing on the flattest ground they could find (a gentle 53 degree slope). They stripped the logs and pilled them up into a makeshift landing pad. It looked fairly level, I was impressed; the fuzzy wuzzy angles had struck again.

The Black Hawk descended slowly, carefully, one slip and it won’t be a single aircraft wreck they’ll be looking for. The trees were level with the fuselage and rising, they couldn’t have been more than 25 feet away, leaving a meager 5 foot clearance from the rotor disk spinning at a ridiculously high speed and being our only grasp on the air around us.

The makeshift pad was close, very close. There is no way we’re fitting on that. The front wheels settled onto the pad lightly yet firm. ‘10 minutes only’ the loadmaster called out. I had talked with the pilot on the importance of getting footage from the site before we took off and he assured me that if there was enough clearance in the cloud base he would get me on the ground and pick me up again before it closed in.

I jumped out; video camera rolling and a stills camera bouncing off my still clean uniform. I noted how close the rotor disk was to the rising terrain and the trees that still stood as I clambered up the slope into a vantage point I could film the Blackhawk taking off from the site. It was then I noticed how the pilots had landed, if it was still classified as such. I was correct in assuming the pad was too small for this large helicopter, in fact it was less than half of the required size. Looking along the fuselage I noted that the front wheels were in the centre of the pad with its single rear wheel hovering over the edge of the pad, which happened to be over the edge of the mountain. The skill required to maintain this balance must have been extraordinary, not to mention the balls.

I snapped a couple still frames in between struggling to hold a steady frame with my rapid breathing. As soon as the Back Hawk backed out of its position on the mountain I turned and raced towards the locals. ‘The crash, which way?’ of course no one speaks English. Do I dare act out an aircraft crash? Before I make a fool of myself a voice is held high up on the hill, ‘This way’. It was the shaky voice of a medic, traumatized by what he had seen. (his experiences would later see him rushed to Australia for care). I looked up, ‘bugger’ It looked a good climb, and to top it off I needed to be on that Black Hawk as soon as it showed up, with footage worthy of an award.

I made it. I was now flying back to Port Moresby with some great footage and even better stills. I smiled. This is what I live for. I felt a tingle as I realized this would be the first vision the world had seen of this horrific accident that had claimed the life of all thirteen on board. It wasn’t the tingle that I felt at a funeral, a tingle with a vulture seasoning. This was more; better, it was a proud tingle, a feeling of achievement. I liked it.

That night was quieter, a quick edit and drive to the ABC studio in the town centre saw the vision streamed live via satellite to all networks. Another day down, we headed home to the comfort of a chicken curry, SP lager and air-conditioning. We stayed up and watched all the news channels we could find and cheered every time my vision was played. This is how it should be done. Shoot during the day, airplay at night. My eye lids fell motionless, they deserved a rest, tomorrows another long day.

I woke up to the smell of death, it was surrounding me. The room sapped it from my clothes and radiated it out into every nook. I gagged. What I saw the previous day and more to the point what I walked through and around was enough to justify the condition the room now lay in. I wondered what my college thought, as I was sharing the room with him. I looked across; he seemed oblivious to the smell as he changed into his disruptive pattern camouflage uniform.

Today we had secured two seats on the first run up to the site. I would be accompanied with Chris, my colleague. He would take care of the stills leaving me to concentrate on video. I had a plan, to focus on the workers, not the scene. This would provide the world a new view on the scene. They could personalize it and see the work that goes on behind the scenes in a recovery operation like this.

Once again I was on the way to the site, speeding along at around 140 knots, winding through the mountain range like a slalom skier. It was exhilarating, I felt the rush. I had flown in Black Hawks many times before but this was different somehow. This had a purpose, the other times had all been on exercises or Operations in Timor, a benign operation that I classed as more of a sight seeing tour.
We descended through the clouds and emerged close to the side of the mountain and the site. The locals glued in the same position there were the last time I was here. I jumped out the left side this time as Chris followed off the pad. I climbed up to the site through the ‘Official Entry’; a series of log steps buried into the mountain side, already reflecting the somber mood of the site. I clambered up; slipping a few times as a few logs gave way. I had seen this site before, but at the same time I hadn’t seen anything. This time I took in my surroundings. Behind and 50 feet below was the landing pad, in front was a large blue tarp held up by saplings. Sprawled under the tarp was essential equipment for the task, evidence bags, gloves, sunscreen, bread, water, hats and large black body bags. I turned my head and looked elsewhere. To the right were a Papua New Guinea soldiers tending to there tired feet whilst water boils over an open flame. This seemed to be there accommodation; an area the size of an average office desk, dug to provide a level platform for sleeping. I reflected on my hotel room.

To the left of the main tarp was an entry way into the crash site, I stepped gingerly towards it. In front of me was a wreckage of something, I couldn’t quite make it out. The ground is slippery, I look down. Wet mud, not deep but saturated from a heavy down pour the day before. I remind myself to watch my step. I can’t help but wonder, looking at the state of the aircraft, what else is mixed in with the mud, I push on.

Moving slowly towards the wreckage I look left and see the trail of destruction. I can clearly see path the aircraft took. It must have turned too early in the cloud and unable to pull up in time made a bee line toward the side of the mountain. One tree had taken the full impact of the 7 ton airframe. The trunk was the size of a 44 gallon drum, sheered cleanly 12 foot off the ground. The sudden deceleration had caused her number 2 engine to continue on its own flight path, oblivious it had left the aircraft behind.

I survey the scene in front of me. The tree trunk might have sheered but I can clearly see what came off second best. The tail fin sat proud, flying its royal blue Airlines PNG banner for all to see. The aircraft had been drawn and quartered and by the look of some of the surrounding trees, hung as well. Not a fitting end for a hardened and proven aircraft, not to mention its occupants.

I pushed my thoughts aside and focused on shooting the rescue, or should I say recovery team working hard to identify and recover the remains of all 13 on board. The Black Hawk arrived 15 minutes later and I boarded, strapped in then reviewed my tape; finding the shots I’d send to the world that night. A hard task at the best of times only made harder by the fact that all my vision was award winning its own right. I could taste the Warkley award already.

That night we treated ourselves to a well cooked steak at the Yacht Club, polished off with a cleansing SP larger. We talked about boats, fast cars and women till late. It was good to step away from reality for a few hours.

I needed to cover more than just the site so the next morning we boarded a Caribou and headed for Kokoda airstrip. The Caribou had, a few days before, been participating in a training mission through PNG. The height and steepness of its ranges made for some difficult flying, a better high altitude mountain training field you could not find. They, like us, had abandoned there task to take up the recovery mission. It was a shame this would be one of its last real tasking prior to its decommissioning in December.

Landing at Kokoda was a non event, although this was a direct result of the training these Royal Australian Air Force pilots receive, not o mention the additional mountain training they had undergone a few days prior. After instructing the pilots to make another take off and landing for the camera, I jumped out the rear and positioned myself on the side of the strip. The distinctive sound of its twin Pratt and Whitney throbbed as it lined up. As directed the pilot pulled her up just 50 feet from me filling the viewfinder. I always loved the caribou, its distinctive look and performance giving it a package hard to dislike.

Once I had filmed the landing an interview was organised with a colourful pilot. A true Aussie larrikin yet on film he comes across well polished and proud of his uniform. He spoke about the Caribou, how another chapter was closing on Australian aviation, about the importance of his mission here in PNG, and about his personal feeling towards being here. This was sure to be used tonight. Well to be honest, I dictated what would be used anyway as my vision was the only useable vision coming out of PNG.

Sitting under the wing I hear an aircraft sound. I strain my eyes to find the source of the sound across the vast plain that Kokoda airfield rests in. I scan the distant mountains and I spot it, a pin prick buried in the landscape. It grows and I recognize its shape. A UH-60 Black Hawk with its four-bladed and twin-engines bought by the Australian Army as a medium-lift utility helicopter and manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft. It comes in low and fast, touching down a wings length from the Caribou.

A figure emerges from the fuselage, a figure I’d seen before. I recognise him as the Doctor up at the site, I motion him over and say hello. After chatting with him for a while I ask if I could put him on camera as his experiences were intriguing. After a 30 minute interview it was obvious this gentleman needed help, help I could not give him. The scene that confronted him on the side of the mountain had touched him, in a way that scars. I thank him for his time and pack up my reflector.

That night we hear that the Doctor had been transferred to a waiting Australian Navy vessel with a trauma team on board and headed at speed for the Australian coast. I was relieved, he needed help.

The next week went past quickly. I made a few more visits to the crash site, went to Kokoda airstrip again and shot a lot of interviews. Interviews were my bread and butter, without those the vision had an 80% chance of not being used. People like to personalize an event and the media are no different. Interviews, vox pops, pieces to camera, it all did the same thing, allowed the viewer to identify with the talent, feel what they’re feeling, see what they saw. Of course you can’t just have an interview by itself but you do need them.

For this job I worked in a team of three, a Public Affairs Officer, a stills cameraman and myself, the video guy. I was fortunate enough to have a good crew, and when the opportunity came to have some downtime we stuck together.

The day was hot, maybe 37 degrees, maybe more. The sky was clear of any blemishes giving us no reprieve from the intense rays hurtling towards us. We didn’t care; in fact we threw caution into the wind and headed for the best golf course on this Island. A quick 9 will do us I thought. I was wrong; we made it around 5 before cowering from the heat and Ultra Violet radiation. Next time I’ll remember the sunscreen.

I look down; the only way I can as I was on harness, leaning far out on the ramp of the Caribou. The Black Hawk was below me with its precious cargo slung from its belly. We were on the way back from the crash site; I was in the Caribou, the Twin Otters number 2 engine slung underneath the Black Hawk. This was the concluding piece for my vision of the crash site and I was having fun. It’s not every day you get to hang out the back of an aircraft at seven thousand feet, held only by a harness and your boots on the edge of the ramp.

Once the engine was delivered at the military compound within Port Moresby International Airport for investigators to look over, my job was over until the repatriation of Australian citizens just under a week later. Time for some R and R.

We boarded a ferry and headed for the island. If you imagine a small island, around 5 acres worth, put a house…. Scratch that, a third world shack with a souvenir shop and snorkeling gear for hire, the picture would resemble our day on the luxurious resort island 10 minutes off the coast of Port Moresby. We snorkeled a nearby reef which turned out to be full of marine life. I remembered why I had taken up diving 10 years prior. The star fish, brain coral, eels and other assorted life kept me in the water for a good 2 hours.

As I sit in my office writing this I think back at all the trips and tours I’ve been on with Defence and rate this up there with my tour of Afghanistan.

1 comment:

  1. Great read Guy! Looking forward to following your journey.....