17-23 July 2015 #767

Back-stopping rescue

ICIMOD’s behind-the-scenes help with location and weather information was critical in increasing the reliability of earthquake rescue and relief flights

Photo: Arnico Panday

Within hours of the earthquake on 25 April, relief flights from overseas started arriving at Kathmandu Airport. Helicopters from India, the US, and China joined others from the Nepal Army and private operators in a major airlift to reach remote villages to pick up the injured and stranded, and drop off relief supplies and medical teams.

In the first days after the earthquake some rescue and relief flights were finding it difficult to locate their destination in the 15 affected districts as they flew in unfamiliar terrain, or had to turn back because of bad weather. On 30 April within three hours of receiving a call from the Home Ministry, a team of atmospheric scientists from ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) set up a temporary office at the Nepal Army hangar at Kathmandu Airport, and worked there from dawn to dusk until 28 May, helping helicopter pilots in their rescue and relief flights.

Photo: Subasana Shrestha/ICIMOD

The pilots needed GPS coordinates of their destination, which they had earlier tried to compute off paper maps using rulers. The ICIMOD team brought in Google Earth on big screens, helped find drop off points in remote locations, identified and evaluated landing sites for different helicopters, mapped potential flight paths, and provided elevation information to calculate load limits.

The pilots were provided colour printouts of customised maps showing 3-D terrain images of their routes and destinations with GPS coordinates and elevations marked.  Indian Air Force Wing Commander Shiv Shankaram who flew in MI17s from Gorakhpur said elevation accuracy was very important in flying in the mountainous terrain. Since altitude affects the efficiency of helicopters, pilots need to know what height they will be flying in order to plan their load for delivery and pickup. He also said that the aerial maps they had been using to navigate over large distances were not detailed enough, making it difficult to assess altitude accurately and therefore the images provided by the team were of great help to them in relating to the nearby hills and rivers to locate villages accurately.

With the ICIMOD team assisting in flight dispatch and operations, flight times were significantly reduced and reliability in reaching destinations increased. As a result, the total number of successful rescue and relief flights per helicopter per day went up, totalling some 2,751 sorties during ICIMOD’s service period. 

“Right after the main shock ICIMOD appeared at the airport to help our relief flight movement. They were a blessing from the god,” said Col Dipak Karki, who was in charge of dispatching the helicopters.

After more than three weeks of continuous emergency service at the airport, and once the number of helicopter flights per day slowed down sufficiently, ICIMOD experts initiated a phase-out plan, sharing data and files, and teaching Nepal Army officials how to use the online tools.

Read also:

Quake from space, Ayesha Shakya

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