“Just another day in the life of an aviator,” is how Leading Seaman Blake Woolard describes his recent experience of hanging from a helicopter in the middle of the Tasman, in pitch darkness, while being pounded by massive waves and experiencing the occasional dunking.
September 29 2013 began as a routine day for Aircrewman LS Woolard, Pilot LCDR David O’Toole, Aviation Warfare Officer LEUT Phillip Rhodes and Aircrewman Instructor PO Colin McCallum of 816 Squadron, but it soon developed into one of high drama the crew may never forget.
After landing Seahawk helicopter, Tiger 74, on HMAS Perth (III) for a day of deck landing training, they were immediately re-tasked with the rescue of the Lorenceas, a French couple who were stranded in a life raft in high seas after their yacht had sunk 385 nautical miles east of Eden.
Prior to capsizing, the couple had been able to contact NSW Police via satellite phone. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) tasked their Dornier search and rescue plane to assist and issued a broadcast to shipping in the area and requested military assistance.
AMSA’s Dornier located the yacht just before 3:30pm and was able to drop survival equipment, which included the life raft to the Lorenceas.
At 6:25pm a merchant ship responding to the broadcast located the couple, but four to five metre swells and 25 knot winds prevented a rescue attempt.
As Perth sailed closer to the Lorencea’s position, reducing the distance the helicopter needed to fly, the 816 crew made good use of the time they describe as being the “calm before the storm.”
Each member of the team had preparations to make, perhaps the most vital at this stage was LEUT Rhodes who had to calculate the best launch and recovery time and fuel requirements to complete the rescue.
The crew also spent time together running through various ‘what if’ scenarios to ensure they were prepared for anything the night might throw at them.
Shortly after 8pm the crew took off. Even with the Lorencea’s coordinates, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack - in the dark.
Fortunately, using the Seahawk’s night vision capability, the crew were able to locate the couple, though the situation started to get really challenging from there.
Fuel was rapidly decreasing making every minute matter and aircraft was being buffeted, which made the task of wireman and winchman even more difficult.
As a result, trying to position LS Woolard either near or in the life raft was a difficult process as he was constantly spinning on the winch, while being pounded by the waves and getting dunked in the water.
Once in the life raft, LS Woolard was keen to get the couple to safety as quickly as possible. Working in the dark he managed to locate Bernard Lorencea who refused to go first, insisting that his wife be rescued before him.
Mrs Lorencea was winched to safety, but before LS Woolard could return to her husband the call was made that fuel had now reached critical levels and crucial decisions had to be made.
Given that Perth had moved closer, the distance Tiger 74 had to fly was reduced, so it was decided they could afford to allocate 60 more seconds for one last rescue attempt.
The crew describe these moments as a “bit intense”. If they were unsuccessful, they would have to return to the ship and refuel before attempting another rescue, and there was a strong possibility that Mr Lorencea would no longer be in the life raft when they got back.
LS Woolard was lowered one last time and, to everyone’s relief, Mr Lorencea was winched to safety.
The crew are all very keen to downplay their actions and say they were just doing the job they were trained for. They will admit, that once they were back on Perth and Tiger 74 was shutdown and the Lorenceas were receiving medical attention that what they were able to process everything they’d done.
“It wasn’t the most straightforward rescue and the conditions were challenging, we’re pleased we were able to get the couple to safety,” said LS Woolard.
If the four men are keen to avoid any suggestion of heroism, the Lorencea’s effusive thanks sent Commodore Vince Di Pietro paint a picture of the teams good work.
Commander Fleet Air Arm
Now that we are back in France and have found our family and friends, we often think of those to whom we owe our lives. When we tell our shipwreck, we do not lack to emphasize the efficiency and effectiveness of Australian aid that have succeeded, at the risk of their own lives to save us so quickly while we were away from the coast after storm which made difficult the operation of the helicopter. Thank you to those who responded to our call, thank you to those who have coordinated, thank you to the crew of the rescue plane, thank you to the pilots and crew of the helicopter, the ship that has watched over we, the crew of HMAS Perth who collected us and comforted. Congratulations on this fantastic job! We will not forget you.
With immense gratitude from Bernard and Dominique Lorencea