The Icelandic coastguard is calling for double the present number of rescue helicopters to ensure uninterrupted search & rescue capability.
Sightseeing helicopters for tourists are not a good enough backup, the coastguard says; because they cannot conduct rescues at sea and cannot operate in bad weather. The coastguard believes that to ensure constant coverage it should have four rescue helicopters instead of the present two.
RUV reported that neither helicopter was operational when an emergency call came in from Kverkfjoll in the Vatnajokull glacier yesterday. The helicopter TF-GNÁ was (and remains) out of service for regular maintenance and an unexpected malfunction on Wednesday left TF-LÍF grounded as well. It is believed the second helicopter will be operational again by the end of today.
In the meantime a sightseeing helicopter from Nordurflug has been available to cover.
Hrafnhildur Brynja Stefansdottir, the coastguard information officer, says that with only two helicopters it is always possible that malfunctions ground both craft, and that experience shows that to be a highly undesirable situation.
Although it happens very rarely, yesterday and today are not the first time air cover has been down. Stefansdottir says that to be sure of always having two helicopters available at all times, the coastguard should be in possession of four specially-fitted rescue helicopters.
During yesterday’s rescue of a tourist, who had broken his legs in an ice cave ice collapse, rescue workers had to carry the man for half an hour to where the Nordurflug helicopter was able to land — whereas a coastguard helicopter would have been able to winch him to safety without landing.
Stefansdottir added that rescue helicopters are specially equipped for saving lives and it is possible to winch rescuers down to pluck people to safety in situations where there is often no other alternative, for example out at sea.
The Icelandic coastguard covers a large area of land and sea which is frequented by international aviation and shipping, as well as a great number of fishing boats. The sparsely populated nature of the country also means that helicopters are used for inland rescues more often that in neighbouring countries. The coastguard also has boats available and is backed up by ICE-SAR, one of the world’s best equipped and experienced volunteer rescue organisations, with branches in almost every town.