North Sentinel Rescue
Back in February of 2006 I quoted at length from a piece by Adam Goodheart relating a 1981 encounter with the Sentinelese people, an isolated hunter-gatherer society who live on one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
Last week, I received an email from Bob Fore, wonderfully titled ‘I Am The Helicopter Pilot In The North Sentinal Rescue’ and telling of Bob’s role in the rescue of the sailors of the Primrose, who were stranded on a coral reef off North Sentinel Island, and under attack by the Sentinelese tribe.
It was with no small amount of interest that I read the article (while surfing the internet) that you wrote on the 9th of February, 2006 concerning a helicopter rescue in the Andaman Islands located in the Bay of Bengal. You see, I was one of the helicopter pilots that flew the three trips to the M.V. Primrose to rescue the crew after it ran aground off the north shore of North Sentinal Island.
For the most part, [the] description of the incident was correct, thought there were several points that were in error, almost certainly because they were of no major import. One of the inconsistencies was that the helicopter which performed the rescue was in fact a civilian helicopter belonging to P.T. Airfast Services, Indonesia, which we worked for. We were supporting an Oil And Natural Gas Commision (ONGC- Indian Govt. Agency) contract, which provided off-shore helicopter support to an oil exploration rig (if memory serves, it was the Gettysburg) located off the northwest shore of Andaman Island. Robert Fore (myself) and Vic Wiersba) were the two pilots which flew the mission on August the 2nd, 1981.
We had a developed a friendship with Admiral Sawnhi, the Indian Naval District Commander, during our stay at Port Blair. We were approached by his office on the morning of the rescue with the information concerning a grounded ship with crew still aboard on North Sentinel Island. There had been a typhoon which forced the ship aground on the island in the preceeding week. We were asked if we could provide rescue services for the crew, since the Indian Navy had no ships or helicopters in the immediate area, and it would take several days for them to arrive.
We agreed to attempt the rescue, but had little in the way of concrete information to work with in the preparations for the attempt. We did construct a rudimentary rope ladder in the event we would not be able to land the helicopter on the Primrose’s deck. Also, an Indian Naval aviator (fixed-wing) Lt. Gadhok, who was assigned to the Naval District Command, volunteered to accompany us. It was hoped he might provide valuable support for organizing the crew for rescue, once he was on-board the ship.
The aircraft was an S-58T Sikorsky, a modified twin-turbine design helicopter, which could hold a max of 16 passengers and 2 pilots. We flew to the site of the shipwreck, and saw that the vessel had been driven far up on the reef, more than a 1/4 mile, and that while there was still large 15 or 20 foot waves pounding the vessel, there was no chance that it would sink, or for that matter ever see service again.
The deck had several cranes spaced approximately 50 feet apart, with cargo hatches in between. It was felt that we would be able to land the helicopter with a couple feet of clearance on both sides of the rotor system to the sides of the helicopter. We accomplished the first landing with 30 plus knot crosswinds, and touched down our wheels on the hatch covers. Due to loading, and weather conditions, it was decided to take off equal numbers of crewmen on each of 3 trips. I believe the total was 33 crew, and the mascot dog. We did not take any personal gear, because that would have meant extra trips, and under the poor weather conditions we did not have any desire to push our luck any more than was necessary for the savings of lives.
It was well known that the ship was aground on a very dangerous island, and that they had come under the threat of attack from the native tribe. Their first attempt to reach the Primrose had failed when the rudimentary boats they had tried to construct had foundered in the heavy surf. But the situation was becoming more dangerous because of gradually improving weather conditions. This could allow the native to get much closer to the ship. As it was, the natives had not even learned the art of placing feathers on the several foot long arrows they had, which only allowed a practical effective range of perhaps 30 or 40 meters. The ship was more like 100 meters from shore.
A previous attempt to reach the crew of the Primrose was attempted by a Indian Navy (Cutter) which had no helicopter. The ships doctor and a crewman had attempted to reach the ship from just beyond the drop-off offshore, but the inflatable nearly foundered, and they were lucky to get back to their vessel. I assume they were the ones that called for assistance once they realized they could not do anything.
When we made our approach for the first landing with heavy cross-winds, it was very difficult to determine clearance on the rotor blades from the derricks. After the first landing we found we had about 2 feet of clearance on each side of the aircraft. On the subsequent approaches, Lt. Gadhok provided ground assistance for clearnace of our rotors from the obstructions. The rope ladder idea was discarded as unnecessary, even though the weather conditions were not ideal. The thought of hovering for extended periods above deck, with people climbing a rope ladder did not appeal to us. We did not at any time during the morning see any island natives. They were almost certainly there observing, but whether from fear of the helicopter, or whatever other reason, theey did not make themselves known to us. After the third trip, all aboard were rescued, and our part in the mission was concluded. A couple days later, a Indian Navy cruiser, with a Alouette helicopter arrived, and the helicopter evacuated the personal effects of the crew, I believe by using a rescue hoist.
I just thought you might find the account of interest, since you had been intrigued enough to write about this event. I do have some photographs of the ship run aground taken from the air, and during our apporach to the ship, as well as some taken on-deck after our first landing. But the photos are in storage in my household goods in the Philippines, and it will not be until later next year before I could get access to them.