An Icelandic coast guard helicopter likely saved a man’s life last Friday when it flew backwards for five kilometres to Ísafjörður.
The dramatic manoeuvre was needed because of weather conditions in Ísafjörður, and doctors at the National Hospital of Iceland say that the helicopter crew’s decisive action likely saved the man’s life.
Conditions were extreme in Ísafjörður when the call for help came to Iceland’s coast guard last Friday, with wind ranging between 35 to 40 m/s, and little to no visibility.
Andri Jóhannesson, helicopter pilot in the coast guard, stated that the mission was one of the most difficult he had been a part of in his 15-year career.
Andri stated to Vísir that when the crew arrived in the Westfjords, wind conditions were so bad that it was not possible to fly straight into Ísafjörður like usual.
With a strong north-northwest wind, it would have been extremely dangerous to fly into the fjord, but nevertheless, the crew tried twice to fly into the fjord at a low altitude. However, the zero-visibility conditions made this impossible.
A hard decision
After these failed attempts, the crew was forced to make a roadside landing in order to assess the situation further.
When the crew took stock of the situation, it was clear that they were running low on fuel. The crew had flown in a stiff headwind all the way from Reykjavík, and the multiple attempts at entering the fjord had forced them to spend more time in the air than they had planned.
The crew would not be able to make it to Bolungarvík, a village near Ísafjörur, and the location of the patient. The crew would be forced to land in Ísafjörður to refuel and pick up the patient there.
Flying with their nose in the wind
Given the conditions, the crew realised they would not be able to fly the usual way, with the wind at their back, as it would be impossible to turn the helicopter to land in Ísafjörður. The decision was made to instead fly with “their nose in the wind,” that is, backwards, for a total of five kilometres.
This, however, was not the end of the drama. Given the low visibility, flight mechanic Árni Freyr had to lead the way. With the back of the helicopter open, Árni directed the final approach of the helicopter. In a harness and partially hanging out of the helicopter, Árni led the crew like this for some 20 minutes.
Upon landing in Ísafjörður and taking on the patient, the helicopter was forced to perform a “hot refuelling,” in which the engine stays on. Given the harsh winds, it may have been impossible to start the rotors again if the engine was turned off during the refuelling process.
A life saved
The patient, who had suffered a heart attack, was immediately sent into surgery upon arrival in Reykjavík, and doctors claim he would have died without the crew’s bravery.
The story, dramatic as it is, highlights the critical role played by emergency services in Iceland. Many remote parts of Iceland become largely inaccessible during the winter. Often, there is only one rescue helicopter on call, and there have been calls to increase funding to the coast guard and search and rescue services.