North Otago helicopter John Oakes received a Royal Humane Society award last week for risking his life saving those of others in Antarctica.
Rebecca Ryan tells the story of that rescue which John said was just doing his job:
On December 1, 2013, John Oakes saw the helicopter in front of him crash in a remote, heavily crevassed area in the Antarctic.
Mr Oakes was flying the other of two helicopters returning from a mission to survey a penguin colony.
Landing about 15m away in whiteout conditions, about 240km from Davis Base, Mr Oakes turned to his passenger and said:
”I hate to say it, but I don’t think anyone could’ve survived that.”
Then they saw movement.
One woman crawled through the snow away from the wreck and the pilot also appeared.
The other Australian expeditioner was found trapped in the wreck, hanging upside down, held by her seatbelt, with her foot caught in the seat panel.
They had all suffered serious injuries and Mr Oakes raised the alarm.
Two aircraft arrived overhead within an hour and a-half, but due to the deteriorating weather and the surrounding area of bad crevasses, they were unable to land and returned.
Frequent snow showers and blizzard-like conditions continued as Mr Oakes and his passenger tended to the injured, making sure all the three were protected from the elements, one in a bivouac shelter and the others in the rear of Mr Oakes’ helicopter.
They waited on the ice for 20 hours before there was a suitable weather window to fly to Sansom Island, where another plane was waiting to help return the injured to Davis Base.
He took two of the injured there, refuelled and returned to the crash site with a doctor and an engineer on board.
On the return to Davis Base, storms started to hit again, Mr Oakes said.
”We were back into 58 to 60 knots, the aeroplanes were getting a hammering, we were getting a hammering, so we were pretty happy to land back at base,” he said.
Arriving at Davis Base, Mr Oakes was totally exhausted at the end of what had been a harrowing 36-hour stretch and said it was his 28 years of North Otago Search and Rescue experience that had kicked in to get him through.
Last week, he was presented with a Royal Humane Society medal for his efforts in the rescue, which was a ”pretty humbling” experience.
The medals are given for acts of bravery in which rescuers put their own lives at risk to assist others whose lives are in peril.
Mr Oakes said he was ”just doing his job” – he was in the Antarctic, working for the Australian Antarctic Division, as helicopter support flying people to isolated places to assist in scientific studies. . .
This honour is well deserved.
It isn’t the first time John has risked his life to save people but you’d never hear that, or any of the other extraordinary stories of just doing his job from him.