New satellite system saves the day

A new search and rescue satellite system covering New Zealand has only been operating in test mode for three days, but has already enabled the potentially lifesaving rescue of an injured tramper in the Tararua Ranges.

The 53-year-old solo tramper broke his leg in two places yesterday, after tumbling 40 metres in a fall near Girdlestone, on the Wairarapa side of the Tararuas. Once he came to a standstill, and assessed his exposed bones, the Wellington man realised he was in a “dodgy situation” – especially if he had to spend a night in the open while so badly injured.

He got the personal locator beacon from the top pocket of his pack, strapped to his chest, and set it off. The signal was received via the new medium-Earth orbit search and rescue (MEOSAR) satellite system, currently operating in test mode, just four minutes later. That was an hour earlier than would have been the case under the system it is replacing – time that proved crucial in getting the man to safety.

With intermittent cloud cover limiting helicopter access, it took a skillful net grab by Amalgamated Helicopters of Carterton, at the end of usable daylight, to get the man to safety.

The MEOSAR system uses a new generation of satellites, orbiting around 20,000 km above the Earth, that are replacing the current low-Earth orbit (LEOSAR) satellites (orbiting at between 800-1000 km), which are being phased out over the next four years.

There are currently 18 MEOSAR satellites operating, compared with five LEOSAR satellites. This means beacon signals can be received more quickly, and beacon locations identified with greater accuracy.

RCCNZ Manager Mike Hill says access to information from the system, which is part of a joint search and rescue system with Australia, was arranged with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority on Friday.

“We wanted to have access to the test data to ensure that anything that was useful could be used to aid rescues,” Mike says.

“The extra time created by receiving the signal faster was invaluable, and potentially lifesaving. It meant we could get the search operation underway earlier, and that made all the difference with the limited daylight hours that are available at this time of year.”

The rescued man, an educator and father of three, says he is an experienced solo-tramper and mountain runner. He takes safety very seriously, and when tramping with his sons they know where the beacon is carried and how to operate it.

After the fall, he was conscious he might end up having to survive the night on the mountain. While he had a sleeping bag, pack liner and an emergency blanket, he was concerned that shock would set in further, along with the pain. The 20 metre downhill crawl back to his pack would have also proved a “challenge”, along with getting his dangling leg into the sleeping bag.

The tramper had dragged himself uphill from his pack, in difficult and steep terrain, to try and get cellphone coverage – and to be more visible for a helicopter pick-up. He had made it half-way.

RCCNZ Search Mission Coordinator Chris Henshaw praised the efforts of Amalgamated Helicopters in reaching the man before darkness fell.

“The helicopter crew has done a tremendous job in reaching him at the very end of daylight. With his injuries, a night out in the open would have been very difficult for him.”