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KwaZulu-Natal - With a thunderstorm hurling lightning and swirling winds battering the Air Force Oryx helicopter, Lieutenant-Colonel Graham Chisholm kept a steady hand on the controls as he descended into a rescue mission.
Below, a group of hikers signalled their location on the steep-sided valley near Sani Pass in the Drakensberg, with a torch.
The hikers friend, Harro Tonsing, had been bitten by a puff adder.
Like a scene orchestrated in an award winning Hollywood action movie, Chisholm, a 37-year air force veteran, guided his aircraft on the dangerous rescue mission he undertook last week.
“We got the call at 5.45pm and prepared and were ready at 6.45pm,” said Chisholm.
They had been alerted to Tonsing’s situation by the Mountain Rescue Club.
After Chisholm and his flight crew from 15 Squadron, Captain Heinrich Thomas and Flight-Sergeant Dylan Finns, had readied to leave, they took off from their Durban base for Oribi Airport in Pietermaritzburg, where they picked up three Mountain Club members and a paramedic.
As darkness fell, the first sign of the turbulent conditions surfaced and they were forced to alter course to the province’s capital to reach the airport due to thunderstorms.
When they had picked up their passengers, the journey to the Berg began.
Wearing night vision goggles, Chisholm navigated through the narrow passes of the mountainous region until he located the hikers.
“The guys on the ground had a torch which guided us in as we descended.
“We could not land due to the steep sides of the valley,” he said.
Unable to put the chopper down, Chisholm had to hover while Finns lowered the two Mountain Club members and the paramedic by hoist.
“You are in a gorge, the winds are swirling and I am looking to the left and right, the co-pilot is reading the instruments, and the engineer is hoisting the guys,” said Chisholm, who explained the additional dangers of the mission.
“You are in the dark at 7 500 feet (2 280m). There were thunderstorms in the Berg and the lightning sometimes blacks out the night vision.
“It was definitely one of the more exciting rescues I have been on,” he said.
After Tonsing had been secured in a stretcher, he, along with the rescue team, were hoisted into the chopper. He was then flown to St Anne’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg for treatment.
Chisholm said that it was mostly a thankless job, but that he enjoyed doing it, and he and his crew were always there to help those in need.
Hospital spokeswoman Shubnum Ismail said Tonsing’s condition had improved and he was doing well. - The Mercury