My Experience Filming with the Irish Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue Service
It has been years since I flew with the crew at the Waterford helicopter base for the six-part documentary series, “Rescue 117,” which provided exclusive access to the Irish Coast Guard’s helicopter Search and Rescue service. As I reflect back on those six months, I am filled with a whirlwind of emotions – the thrill of adventure, deep gratitude, and overwhelming heartbreak.
From the first day of flying, there was an unmistakable sense of camaraderie and unity among the crew that made me feel like I was part of something extraordinary. Dunker training was an intense preparation that left me gasping for air, testing my limits, and exposing me to the reality of the dangers that lay ahead.
Dunker training involves being strapped into an aircraft seat within a purpose-built fuselage, then being submerged in water, often upside-down. The goal is to simulate what it feels like to be in an aircraft that has crashed into water and to teach the crew how to safely escape the sinking aircraft.
During dunker training, I went through several attempts at drownings in an hour. Each of these rides was different, but the basics tended to be consistent from one run to the next. I was strapped into my seat, plunged underwater and flipped upside-down, so my sinuses were completely flooded with water. Once the dunker stopped moving, I had to get my emergency breather working, unstrap myself, escape and then swim to the surface.
Although most of the runs in the dunker share these common elements, there were quite a few different ways in which the instructors switched things up. The training facility was also set up to simulate various environmental conditions, such as a torrential downpour, thunder, simulated lightning, wind, and more. All of these environmental factors increased my level of anxiety.
Dunker training was intense and done in freezing cold water, but it was an essential part of preparing for the job. It was a reminder that the crew had to be ready for anything, and the smallest mistake could have severe consequences.
The documentary series captured 18 different rescues, each one a heart-pumping experience. The modified Sikorsky helicopter, developed and produced by the American helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft, was both deafeningly loud and impressive. Each day, the crew flew it at least once, whether there was an emergency or not, to stay sharp and on the ball.
The shifts were 24-hour long, and the crew had to be ready to take off within minutes of receiving a call-out. There was no time to waste, and every second counted. Four crew members flew on each call-out, with the captain and co-pilot up front, and a winch operator and a winchman at the back, both paramedics.
I was the fifth member of the crew on each call-out, treated with respect and trust, and never left behind. The winchman was the hero of the day, jumping out of a flying helicopter onto a moving deck or a cliff face, while the winch operator guided and gauged everything to perfection.
One of the most memorable moments of the series was capturing exclusive footage of a plane crash off Tusker Rock. The rescue crew’s quick thinking and bravery undoubtedly saved the life of the pilot.
One day we could be hovering over a mountain, managing massive up and down drafts to rescue a stranded hiker. The next day we could be out to sea, evacuating a cardiac patient from a boat and rushing them to the hospital. And on yet another day, we could be scouring the vast ocean for a missing person.
If the Winchman jumped out the helicopter I would generally go with them.
Jumping out of a helicopter onto the deck of a heaving ship using a winch is an experience that defies description. It’s a moment of intense focus and adrenaline that requires absolute trust in your equipment and trust in the crew around you.
Alongside the winchman, I would be strapped into a harness, helmet and gloves, and hooked onto the wire that on many occasion would take me down to a ship’s deck. The helicopter would hover a few feet above the deck, swaying and bobbing with the waves, and the noise of the rotor blades and the wind would be deafening.
The winch operator would slowly lower us down, and I would keep my eyes fixed on the deck, watching for any movement that could knock me off balance. The deck of the ship could be slippery, wet and treacherous, and the waves could be pounding against the sides of the vessel, making it feel like I was being thrown around in a washing machine. Wearing a lifevest and survival suit while trying to film is a cumbersome and exhausting experience. While these items are crucial for safety, they can make filming a challenging task. The survival suit is heavy and bulky, and it restricts movement, making it difficult to operate a camera or other equipment. The suit is also designed to be airtight, which means that it can become hot and uncomfortable after extended wear.
But it was more than just the adrenaline rush that made this experience so extraordinary. It was also witnessing the selflessness and dedication of the crew, who put their own lives on the line to save others, often in the face of extreme danger and harsh conditions.
However, tragedy struck just a few years after we completed filming. In March of 2017, Rescue 116 crashed into Blackrock Island off the County Mayo coast, claiming the lives of Captain Mark Duffy and Captain Dara Fitzpatrick. Winchman Ciarán Smith and Winch Operator Paul Ormsby were lost at sea. The news was devastating. In the course of filming these people, especially Dara had become my friends.
As a documentary maker, you often spend a significant amount of time with the people you’re filming, and it’s common for your lives to become intertwined with those of your subjects. During the process of making a documentary, you build relationships with the people you’re filming, and you get to know them on a personal level.
You spend long hours together, often in challenging and emotional circumstances, and you witness their triumphs and their struggles. Over time, you become invested in their lives and feel a sense of responsibility to tell their stories truthfully and respectfully.
The loss was personal and I felt it deeply.
“Rescue 117” was produced in 2010 by RTÉ Cork , a television station in Ireland.