Zip Line Aircraft Rescue

Aircraft strikes and gets hung up on cable, Pilanesberg, 2018-09-28.

Two occupants of a light aircraft had to be rescued after their plane struck a 2km long zipline cable near Sun City/Pilanesberg (North West Province, South Africa).  Fortunately, the pair escaped major injuries as the aircraft did not immediately fall the approximately 100m to the ground but instead got precariously hung up on the cable via the aircrafts propeller assembly.

Local emergency services were quick to reach the scene and immediately secured the area but were unable to assist as the aircraft was suspended approximately 100m above the ground.  The Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC), which is based at the OR Tambo International Airport ATNS facility, took charge of the incident and assembled a team from Johannesburg to fly to the scene and execute the rescue of the occupants.  Volunteer rescuers from the Mountain Club of South Africa Search and Rescue (MSAR) which had cableway rescue experience, as well as the necessary equipment (including several hundred meters of rope) were flown to the incident from Johannesburg via helicopters from the SAPS Air Wing and Menno Parsons, a private aircraft owner and pilot.

After considering several rescue strategies, the most feasible rescue plan involved a rescuer, attached to the cable, being guided down the zip line down to the aircraft.  The rescuer’s position was controlled from the top station of the zip line via several long ropes which were had to be joined to cover the significant distance.  As there was no possibility to inspect the situation close-up and plan the extraction of the aircraft’s occupants in detail prior to committing to the cable, several bags of equipment (including cables to secure the wreck) as well as more than two hundred meters of rope were taken along by a rescuer as backup.

The most critical part of the rescue involved a careful and calculated transfer of the occupants from the aircraft seats (where they were secured in the interim via their seatbelts) to rescue harnesses and delicate repositioning until they were hanging on the cable, free from the aircraft fuselage.  The rescuer and the pair were then raised up the cable and away from the aircraft by some fifty meters as quickly as possible before the rescuer lowered the pair to the sloping ground below, where after the rescuer absailed to the ground.  The final stage of the rescue involved the pair being hoisted into the SAPS Air Wing helicopter, but the second hoist had to be abandoned because of extremely strong gusts of wind, resulting in rescuers walking the pilot down the mountain to awaiting paramedics for a brief medical assessment.  The aircraft itself was also taken down later the same day.

The rescue was complicated by the unknown and questionable purchase that aircraft had on the cable which could potentially be dislodged wither by the wind (which was increasing during the operation) or a change in the weight distribution of the aircraft.  The significant distance that the aircraft was from the top of the cable (an uninterrupted span of approximately 550m from the top to the aircraft) also contributed to the complexity of the rescue.  Despite incident happening at approximately 8:30 in the morning the pair could only be extracted from the dangling aircraft more than five hours later with the pilot and passenger’s ordeal only finishing more than an hour later.

The rescue was coordinated by the ARCC which is established in terms of Annex 12 of the Chicago Convention to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  The on-scene rescue involved several organisations including a SAPS Air Wing Squirrel Helicopter, Menno Parsons with his Bell 407 helicopter, Sun City Fire Services, ER24, Netcare 911, the CAA, the Zipline operator and MSAR.

Photos: Gary Heugh and the Mountain Club of SA Search and Rescue

Related: Mountain Club of SA: Search and Rescue Team Fundraiser

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