Jul 14 2012

“A little dust, and the engine kicks.”

So I've written in the past about Sweep duties. You can read about my previous adventures here and here and here. I'm not going to lie – the attraction of driving through the desert is one that is largely lost on me. I love the novelty of it, I love the landscape, I love the omnipotence of the sand; much like the Cairngorms, there's a clear message from the terrain that, whoever you are, the landscape will kick your ass if you don't respect it.

 

But tooling through the sand for 14 hours just because?

Meh.

Not for me.

 

If, however, you're the type of person who would LOVE to drive around dunes for hours on end, you want to get in touch with Marina at Living Life To The Full In The Empty Quarter. She blogs about her weekly drives through the sand with some awesome pictures that should make you smile.

 

Anyway.

This year my day of sweep involved driving out to meet the sweep teams at their accommodation early in the morning,

I'm not great at driving on the wrong side of the road. I'm a pretty good driver in the UK, but a huge amount of the “odd” stuff that we do as emergency drivers happens by instinct. When I'm driving on the wrong side of the road in Edinburgh, it's not that I'm suddenly working on a complete reversal of the rules of the road, but more that I'm operating under an absence of them.

 

Driving abroad fries my brain, I have to think long and hard every time I make any kind of manoevure, typically chanting “Drive on the right, drive on the right.” to myself whenever I have to navigate a junction or similar. Roundabouts are a fucking nightmare, I simply cannot get my brain to remember that you indicate right to pull off at an exit, rather than to the left.

So the prospect of driving a hundred clicks in a country where the average motorist isn't known for his religious adherence to the Highway Code? And further more where the application of the law can be described as “subjective” by local law enforcement? Was not one that filled my soul with enormous enthusiasm and deep joy.

I was even less reassured when I questioned a colleague on the directions that read “Don't do a U-turn on this bit of motorway…do it at this bit.”

“Whyyyyy?”

“Because a U-turn there is less illegal,” he answered.

How jolly.

Most irritatingly, James, one of our desert virgins, was due to drive the other truck and was skipping about in the dawn light, singing about convoys and looking for all the world as though the thought of our little sojourn bothered him not a jot.

My concerns notwithstanding, after the opening minutes of gut wrenching terror (including the U turn on the motorway, yes) I have to admit I sort of enjoyed the trip. I even managed to find some suitably Arabian shouty-waily-ululatey music on the AM/FM radio in the cab and barrelled along with one window down, my arm hanging out the side. I was a Middle Eastern trucker.

 

An hour or so later we made it to Liwa, only slightly behind schedule. Lisa and James hopped into their respective units and headed off into the dust, while I took advantage of the fact that I was Sweep 3 – the last out and the last back, for sure, but that allowed me time to catch a quick cup of coffee in the canteen.

 

Outside Streaky, my driver for the day, and two other members of his team set to the job of preparing their trucks. Spanners and gaffer tape, filthy jokes and hastily assembled packed lunches, not to mention the traditional slotting of pies into the engine compartments to bake in the sun through the day.

 

 
We lost one member of our convoy early on.

We'd all three gone over a lip that led to a fairly heavy hit at the bottom of the bowl Streaky and I were heading onewards when a voice on the radio called us back. The last man in the convoy had taken them same route as us but struck the sand harder than expected, his vehicle taking a sufficiently solid impact to dislodge his bumper and push it backwards a couple of feet. He had no head or neck pain and hadnt struck anything in the cab, but told me he felt “funny”. He was a bit pale, a bit sweaty and his pulse at the radius wasn't awesome. All in all he seemed like a man who'd dumped his blood pressure, probably through the fright of the hard landing. I kept an eye on him for a while until he felt ready to continue but within a few miles he was back on the radio.

 

“I don't think I'd be smart to carry on…”

 

Sweep drivers are no wilting violets, so I figured if one was telling me he needed to bail out, then it was as good a diagnostic sign as any.

 

One problem, how to get him back to the pc point and onto home?

“I reckon I can drive back myself…”

 

I wasn't thrilled with the idea, but we set up a network for him. He took my cell phone number and we checked that he had a working GPS. As he set off for the PC point (where I knew there'd be an aircraft standing by) I SMSed my SAR colleagues and told them to watch out for him, telling the driver not to leave the PC point until a medic had seen him. We also arranged a fail safe, whereby we estimated how long it would take him to get back, doubled the time and agreed we'd scramble a helo for him if we hadn't heard back.

 

And with that, as safe as I could make it, I shipped a patient off into the desert under his own steam.

 

Comfy much?

 

The day was typical sweep, over some brutally unforgiving routes. We grounded and stuck time and again, each time having to dig or tow each other out of the sand. At one point the bottom of one truck got so embedded in a dune that we snapped a tow-line trying to haul it out. It was tested for 11,000 lb.

 

All day we picked up and dropped off broken down riders, often simply bussing them to the nearest major road where their support teams could rescue them. One chap we collected climbed into the back of the truck and so promptly fell asleep that we forgot he was there; he scared the shit out of us when, miles down the road, a voice from the back seat came out with “Do you have any water?”

 

It was late afternoon and we were enroute to collect a broken down bike when we crested a rise and found a quad lying on its side in a puddle of fuel, a helmet lay next to it, but no rider. We pulled over and fanned out around the crash site, looking for foot prints, looking for any clue as to the rider's location, recognising that he might be riding out with his support team already. Strange that theyd leave the quad, though, and stranger to leave his lid. I walked back to his quad to kick sand over the spilled fuel and casually picked up the helmet.

 

Turning it over in my hands the situation suddenly became much more grave. The visor was snapped from its hinge, there were fractures marks along the jaw line and at the back of the helmet an ugly dent was stoved right through to the lining. It wasn't hard to imagine the mechanism; a heavy landing throws your head forwards, smashing first the flimsy sun visor off your forehead and then slamming your chin guard against the handlebars.

 

You flip forwards and off the quad, but although you've stopped moving after a roll and bounce or two, all four of the quad's wheels are still spinning and propelling it forwards, bouncing and spinning after you “like a fucked off dice” as one rider once described it to me.

 

There are no big rocks on the road, no kerbs at the side to dent your helmet, so the only explanation for that hole in the side of his lid is that his quad spun into him, hammering a handlebar, or foot plate, or even just a protruding corner of chassis into the back of his head as he lay on the ground, dazed and frightened.

 

I needed to know where this guy was, right now.

Thankfully my SMS back to control was rapidly answered with the information I wanted to hear. He was in the air, flying hard and low and fast towards a trauma centre. I took photos of the helmet and communicated the damage back to Patch, just in case the receiving crew had missed it; an easy enough point to skip when you're focussed on your patient, but a useful piece of knowledge to have when deciding imaging and treatment options back at hospital.

 

By the end of the afternoon we'd got stuck again. I was knackered and there was little that could be done without a tow line, so I eschewed a shovel for my camera and backed off to a nearby dune to take the following video, recognising that a photo doesn't always capture the perpetual unending permanence of the sand.

Id like to apologise for my Barry White-esque timbre and gruffness. It was hot, I was dry and tired. I'm normally more melodious.

 


Jul 12 2012

Whiter than white.

Every year we spend an evening cutting loose, letting our hair down (which is sometimes tricky, when the best haircut for this environment is a half-all-over) and kicking it to some crazy beats.

 

Wednesday night. The fancy dress party. This year's theme?

 

The 80s.

I was born in 1981, so I was kinda tempted to turn up wearing a pair of Osh-Kosh dungarees and eating a Wham bar while inviting people to debate whether Panthra was cooler than Lion-O.

 

Clearly, Panthra, obviously.

But no, instead I did my normal trick of walking into the awesome costume shop near the university in Edinburgh and saying “80's themed party, Need a costume. Less than £40.”

 

The lovely woman behind the counter rummaged around before coming up with satin bloom pants, a shoulder padded jacket, dollar sign medallion and oversized shades.

 

“Wanna be Vanilla Ice?”

 

 

Well…clearly.

 

Come the Wednesday evening, though, my claims to being Vanilla Ice were quickly shot down by everyone walking up to me and saying “Ooooh! MC Hammer.” respect went to Ed, though, who'd spent several days before the event painting squares onto a cardboard packing crate in a Rubiks pattern, then wrapping said crate in brown paper, packing his gear into it and using it at his luggage.

 

His. Luggage.

 

I hate clever people.

 

The evening ran on as it typically does, beer flowed, the music struggled to be heard over the associated hubbub (every year we bring shit speakers, every year they don't work), the police officers stationed at the event sat and glowered at our haram dancing, drinking and canoodling and I was just about to turn into my bunk for my 0430 start the next day (sweep duty after the party…yeuch) when we were all gathered into a huddle by the Clerk of the Course.

“I feel it's only right that we recognise the fantastic work that the SAR/MED crew do, and as such this year we've brought along some prizes to thank you for your excellent outfit efforts.”

 

He worked his way through a number of themes, you know the sort of thing, best male, best female, best dressed, most imaginative deployment of hot pants. People were ushered up to the front where they shook the Clerk's hand and received their prize, a box from a Variety pack of breakfast cereal.

 

“And now we have the glittering grand prize, the prize that will be issued to Mr or Mrs 80s. It's….a box of Coco Pops.”

 

The crowd dutifully oohed.

 

“And the Coco Pops go to…..MC Hammer!”

 

Slaps on my back, cheers around me. I'm trying to tell them “But I'm Vanilla Ice!” when a hand pushes me to the front of the crowd.

 

Fuck it, I'm MC Hammer.

 

 


Jul 10 2012

Go north, my son

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 3:32 pm

We’ve been out all day, the sun starting to dip from overhead-and-hotter-than-hell and down towards in-your-eyes-and-only-marginally-fucking-cooler.

“You got the bearing for home?” comes the pilot in my cans.

I slide the GPS from my breast pocket, its lanyard looped around the end of the zip.

Have I mentioned before that the zips on our flight suits are made ‘backwards’? That is, unzipping them requires you to pull them upwards, rather than down. The thinking being that if you get caught in the downwash of the rotors and something attached to your zip gets pulled along in the breeze it’ll *close* your pockets, rather than opening it further and risking more FOD flying up into the blades.

Well, I have now.

Home is punched into my list of “useful places to navigate to in a hurry”, which mainly includes refuel points, trauma centres, check points and the hotel that will serve us cold beer at the end of the event.

Not there yet, though, another few days to run at least.

Selecting home on the bookmarks takes me to a compass circle screen on the GPS, with home appearing at one point on the circle and a long arrow showing our heading.

“Bearing one-niner-zee-roh, please.”

And again feel a litte tickle of excitement as my remote-controlled-real-life toy swings in the air until heading and bearing fall into sync, flying south and just a little west from our location.

“Any requests for speed and height?”

“No, sir.”

“Any need to go directly home? I mean, can I deviate from course?”

Our role at this juncture is to support the racers on the final leg of today’s race. We’ll be faster to activate if we’re airborne in the general area and it’s not worth saving fuel by hammering home and sitting on the HLS.

“As long as we’re heading roughly home, no problem.”

“Mind if I show your guests a little flying?”

“By all means.”

“Strap in.”

I point to the seatbelts of the two medics and one scientist sat on the bench opposite me, mime pulling it tight and give them a thumbs up with quizzical look.

They all pull their belts around their hips and give me a thumbs up back.

I grin.

The pilot flies.

Up and down over dunes, climbing and diving, swooping and soaring, flying the aircraft like a man who normally operates under the critical eye of air traffic control and flies from point a to b and back again. Out here he gets to practice, to play, to fly the helo in the manner he likes to remember he can.

The team are beaming, the occasional “holy shiiiiit!” audible even with my headset on and the blades overhead. We zoom along rally route, moto racers pumping their fists as we pass overhead, co-drivers leaning out of their windows to wave and thumbs-up when we fly alongside them, barely feet above their vehicles’ roofs. At one point we gain height to leap-frog over a set of cables and pylons, reminding me of Eddie Izzard flying on an internal Irish flight on a ten seater plane – “We’ll be flying at a height of twelve and a half feet, going up to fifteen…if we see anything big.”

I pull myself back to the task in hand. This is lots of fun and all, but my job is to maintain comms with control, so it’s time for a quick SMS home.

But when I unlock my UAE phone, I’m surprised to find its screen blank, showing me just the battery read-out. The little antennae infographic on the left has precisely no bars.

Never mind. This happens sometimes, on account of how I’ve spent more on lunches than I shelled out for my UAE phone. Conveniently I also have my UK iPhone with me. Granted, the message will route via GB, but it’ll be nearly as fast as sending messages in country.

My iPhone has the same problem. No network, no signal, no nothing. If I like, I can play Angry Birds, but other than that there’s not much more to offer.

Fucker.

It’s then that my GPS beeps and buzzes in my pocket and I study its screen intently. No GPS link, no speed, no ETA, no location data. All it can tell me is via its digital compass, which shows us as heading largely due south.

I kinda wish I’d paid more attention to Carruthers the other day when I sat in the Control Room while we refuelled. He’d mentioned heightened levels of solar radiation fucking up the comms, the SMS, the Iridium satellite hook ups, they all started to melt in the late afternoon.

“Pilot?”

“Yo.”

“I have no comms and no GPS.”

I’m confident he’ll have a clever helicopter solution.

“Yeah…me neither.”

Well, shit.

“Thoughts?”

“Suggest we gain height, slow down and try to get a satellite fix?”

“Plan.”

“Heading?

And here’s the rub. Our hot-dogging will have taken us some way off our original plotted course.

“I think we continue on one-niner-zee-roh until such time as things change? Your thoughts?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Lisa told me afterwards that it was very obvious that things had gone wrong when the aircraft gained height rapidly and started flying in a more pedestrian manner. She described me “Staring at those three screens like your life depended on it”.

I was focussed on the kit, for sure, as apparently I missed all three pax looking at each other, pointing at me and shrugging.

Lesson 42. Keep your passengers informed.
Lesson 43. Focus on the task in hand.
Lesson 44. Understand that 42 and 43 must be accomplished in tandem and not to the detriment of each other.

Up at a thousand feet and slowly thugging along, I imagine that my GPS will be the first to drop into play, but it’s jerkily refreshing its screen as individual satellites float around the perimeter when my UAE phone receives a text message.

From an unknown number.

I unlock the screen, navigate to messages and open a message that reads “Welcome to Saudi Telecom.”

Oh holy actual shit.

Now, reasonably, it might be concluded that we’re picking up a mast in Saudi, we operate close enough to the border that we’ve probably got line-of-sight on at least one and we’ve just snagged an errant signal from them.

But there’s always the chance that our happy holiday flight home has in fact meandered us a little too far south. Far enough south to cross the border. Far enough south to have entered another country’s airspace, without permission and without doing things like, you know, passport and air traffic control.

It’s a tiny risk, I grant you, but with no accurate location data, it’s not one I’m prepared to ride out.

“Pilot?”

“Yo.”

“Can we change heading, please?”

“Sure, you got a fix?”

“Nope. Change heading to zero degrees please.”

That’s north, for those of you playing along at home.

“Zero?”

“Correct.”

“Back the way we came?”

“Correct.”

“You’re the boss.”

Because the way I see it, with no location data? The best thing I can do is gross navigation. And all I’m aiming to do is be Not-In-Saudi, which is south of the UAE.

We swing northwards and it’s only a few minutes before everything picks up again, the GPS lets me know that all is good, we’re still a fair distance away from an international incident and my continued presence on the team and we’re a gentle flight home for tea and medals.

Lesson 45. Know your location.
Lesson 46. See 45.


Jul 07 2012

Camelicious

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 7:50 pm

 

I want you to imagine what “Camelicious” might translate to.
 
I'm going to give you a clue.
 
The next time you drink hot yoghurt that requires a shot of lemon juice afterwards to clear not just the taste, but the cloying residue from your soft palate?
 
You can safely say “Dude, that shit is Camelicious.”
 

 


Jun 10 2012

Doctor to the door, please.

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 8:36 pm

Gus was clear with us.

“You want to give the crew a ride on the skids? That’s no problem.”

So that afternoon, I sidled up to Lisa.

“You wanna fly?”

“Sure.”

“You’ve been out before, right?”

“Nope.”

Well then.

We stood in the sand and I helped her step into the monkey harness, over the shoulders and tight around the hips. Then I clipped her end to end onto the floor of the heli and sat her on the edge.

“If you don’t like it, just let me know, yeah? We’ll swing you back in any time.”

She nodded, settled into place and the engines started to spin up.

(special award to those of you who spot her at 0:14 realising that I am in fact rolling video and not shooting a picture and she doesn’t have to hold the thumbs-up grin. Sorry Lisa. Also, apologies for the terrible camera work, I shoot stills)

I was shitting myself, sweating and swallowing, knowing that her safety on that edge was down to me not making a cunt of things.

There were no safety nets, if I got my job wrong at this point, I’d put my mate in horrible danger. And worse, a horrible danger that was an entirely unrequired risk. We’re not flying doors-open for any operational reason.

We’re doing so “just because”.

She loved the ride, as most folk do, giggling as we landed that “It’s the one seat in the helo that doesn’t make me sick.”

But what I loved was this.

Lisa knows me fine well. Better than most members of the team; we holidayed in Bali together for two and a half weeks a few years ago.

I had no opportunity to bluff or bravado my way through clipping her in, she knew I was learning by doing, knew this was one of the first times I’d done this to somebody else without another member of SAR looking over my shoulder.

And she trusted me, no questions or doubt.

This team?

They’re amazing.

The event is great, flying is fun and the skills I learn every year are valuable and applicable.

But the people I work with?

They keep me coming back.


Jun 05 2012

Doors open day

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012,UncategorizedKal @ 2:16 pm

At prayers on day two we receive our taskings for the next day.

“SAR 1 – Lilli, Lisa, Kal.”

And that’s new.

Because for the past two days I’ve been tasked with another SAR person. An EXPERIENCED SAR person. I’ve shadowed and followed along, taking a role in communicating with control and following our navigational movements on my own GPS.

But tomorrow?

Tomorrow I’m it.

We’re up sharp and loaded into the back of the heli as the sun rises. For the past two days the pilots have differed in how they want to handle the navigation of the aircraft. One was very independent, pointing to his own GPS “I have all the waypoints programmed in already. Just tell me the name.” Another was happy for us to shout coordinates to him over the radio and program them on the fly.

My guy today is even more chilled out.

“Meh…just tell me a heading.”

I still conflab with him on navigational issues, though, as it turns out that while “Global Positioning” coordinates are universal across the world, the manner in which they are communicated can differ in oooooh, about a billion different ways. You can express them in minutes, or degrees, or seconds, or a mixture of both, or sometimes something entirely different. In Standard Grade Geography I learned about subsistence farming, well digging, aluvian plains and OS coordinates.

OS coordinates don’t work in the desert.

To give you an idea, Wikipedia provides the following list for the SAME location.

40:26:46N,79:56:55W
or
40:26:46.302N 79:56:55.903W
or
40°26′47″N 79°58′36″W
or
40d 26′ 47″ N 79d 58′ 36″ W
or
40.446195N 79.948862W
or
40.446195, -79.948862
or
40° 26.7717, -79° 56.93172

I will put my hands up here and say I don’t understand those. I can punch my coordinates into my GPS and navigate to that point, I can understand bearing vs heading and, given two sets of coordinates I can just about understand them in relation to each other (like, I can tell you if we’re going sorta-the-right-way-sorta).

So when my pilot tells me “Meh?” it does not instill me with joy.

But “Meh” he has said and so “meh” I must work to.

And in fact? It turns out to be pretty good fun.

I put a scientist in the front seat, letting them ride with the pilot and I sit with the medics in the back. Coordinates for our first stand by point in my GPS, my radio crackles in my headset.

“Bearing, please.”

“Bearing seven-five please.”

“Bearing seven-five, yes.”

And the aircraft lifts off the ground, swings the way I’ve said like a compass needle.

“How fast?”

“We need to be comfy, but we need to get there.”

“Yes, boss.”

And the nose dips, the engines pick up and the heli flies away at my bidding.

It’s like having a voice activated, radio controlled helicopter.

It’s….awesome.

Just as we’ve done before, we fly out to a predetermined point and SDSD; set down, shut down.

And then we received a tasking.

I know, holy shit.

An actual job.

We’re to fly out to a rider down who’s currently in the care of a sweep team, a simple enough case of dehydration, he’s to be scooped up and flown back to camp.

We’re up and away, navigating again by my sitting in the back of the heli and reciting degrees to the pilot. We’re overhead in a few minutes and, remembering the briefing about overhead photography I unclip my seat belt and sit on the floor.

“Slow orbit to starboard please.”

“Roger.”

I grab a strap from the floor and clip one end around a metal loop in the floor, spinning the tubes on the carabiner until the latch locks shut. I rattle the crab against the hoop in the floor as hard as I can, twisting it and tugging. It’s secure.

The other end I clip to my rigger’s belt, the metal triangle resting against my pelvis. Again, I twist the crab shut at my waist and yank on it. My hip follows with it.

And then, because of what I’m about to do, I double check both ends again.

“Opening starboard door for visual.”

I check my medics are both belted to their seats, make a last check around the cabin to ensure there’s nothing loose that could whizz out into the tail rotor, grab the door handle and twist it downwards, the lock disengaging with a palpable “clunk” in my hand.

And then, several hundred feet off the floor, I slide the door of the heli open.

The noise increases exponentially, the down draft from the blades swirling into the cabin.

Sat on the floor I swing my feet out of the door and slide forwards until they’re resting on the skids.

I lean forward with the camera in hand and snap the shots you saw last week.

And this should be scary, but it’s not.

I’m so focussed on what I’m meant to be doing, there isn’t really time to think what, you know, sane people, would be thinking.

Which should be “Are you fucking joking? Get back inside the heli, knob-head.”

Photos taken, I roll my legs back into the cabin, slam the door shut and we touch down gently.

So that’s a first…


Jun 03 2012

Hook-up

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 1:43 pm

The noise in the back of the heli is difficult to describe, there’s the whupwhupwhup of the blades overhead, of course, but also, and most incessantly, a high pitched whine from the motors. Not wearing hearing protection is a dumb idea and will guarantee you land with a headache.

The headsets that are supplied have mics on them to allow you to chat to other passengers, but they’re notoriously unreliable.

Often your headset is just a very expensive pair of earmuffs.

We resort to sign language, pointing and miming, mugging and gesturing.

I’m guilty of forgetting that not everybody will understand British Sign Language; I’m quite pleased to find that my brain automatically switches to BSL when I want to communicate non-verbally, but I’m not able to comprehend that people won’t immediately understand basic vocabulary.

At prayers one night, Ed receives plaudits for filling his stand-by time with CPD for his team, practicing a standing-take-down onto a spinal board.

Not to be out-done, I do the same, teaching my team and several others members of the crew an essential phrase.


May 30 2012

Surveillance

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 7:56 am

Many years ago there was a fatality on this event. Gus attended and became subsequently embroiled in the police investigation.

The police out here are diligent. It’s important to them that any details that are available are found and examined in minute detail.

They’re also very good at reaching decisions in cases.

Nothing remains open.

A conclusion will be made.

As a result, Gus spent several hours in an interview room describing over and over the positions of various involved vehicles at the scene of this fatality.

These days the briefing runs that we will photograph any scene before landing, taking an extra minute to turn the helo in a tight bank and shoot a few frames from overhead before we even start looking for a landing site. It’s a detail that’s easy to forget, hopped up on adrenaline and desperate to get on the ground and start treating an accident victim the last thing you want to do is fanny about with a camera.

But it’s important.


May 29 2012

Secular

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 12:44 am

Every night we convene for “prayers”.

I have no idea why our evening meeting is called prayers.

It just is.

It’s one of those words that has become a concept in its own right.

There is no praying involved, the format typically involves a medical debrief from Sean, an operational debrief from Gus and then a laying out of any issues or dramas the team have encountered through the day.

It concludes, traditionally, with beer fines. Anyone who has done something exceptionally stupid through the day gets a beer fine. OFficially it is then their job to provide a slab of beer for the team to drink that evening. On my first year I was told of this concept and bought a slab because I was told to. This year we simply have a beer stockpile and a cooler. Every afternoon, Anne our administrator fills the cooler with beers and ice and every night we, as a group, drink it empty.

It matters not who bought the beer, because it’s all going to end up communal anyway.

Anyway, prayers. Yes.

Day one prayers are uneventful, except for an official introduction and welcome to the Ulster scientists who have travelled down to the desert independently, arriving that afternoon. They will be flying with us the next day and, as I said previously, the idea of carrying non-team passengers makes me nervous.

I’m reassured when Gus lays out the rules. “The SAR guy is the final word on all aspects of your presence here. If they tell you to sit in a particular seat, you will sit there. If they tell you to unbuckle your seatbelt and move while the aircraft is in flight, you will do so. If the space you are occupying is needed for a patient, you will be left at scene. We will endeavour to drop you with other people, such as at a checkpoint. This may not be possible. If you are dropped in the desert we will provide you with as much water and food as we can spare. You will not move from that spot, regardless of what happens. If you move from the location at which you have been left, your chances of survival are extremely grave. Let me repeat that. If you wander away from your location in the desert, you will die.”

The scientists, sat together at one side of the circle, glance at each other before nodding solemnly.

We discuss other aspects, such as the fact that we’ve arranged refuelling bowsers to stand by at the primary hospital we fly to. I’m luxuriating in the knowledge that we won’t have to worry about long flights to an airbase to refuel, when someone mentions that we’ll have to potentially deal with multiple helicopters coming into the same HLS while we’re refuelling. It’s not insurmountable, but another thing to be thinking about.

The next morning our schedule is determined by the dawn, as soon as it’s bright enough to see, it’s bright enough to fly. The race can’t run until there’s an aircraft in the air, so we have to be off the HLS sharpish. I fly with Alix and Magnus. The former being SAR from last year, the latter a Desert Virgin from Sweden, brought to us by veteran Rolf. Magnus is the business, I have infinite time for him having worked with him at the Grand Prix last year, he’s incredibly quiet and enormously witty and sharp. A fantastic guy.

Also flying with us is Paul, one of the Ulster scientists. We have a good chat about his research – it turns out that my original understanding of what they’re doing is pretty inaccurate. What they’re actually trying to find out is if the marshalls (who tend to camp out on the race route for the week) are adequately hydrated even before they hit the desert, and then to investigate any health problems that this may reflect.

Paul’s job today is to get people to piss in little plastic tubes.

Lucky guy.

He’s never flown before, so again we run through the basics.

We lift off and buzz out over the sand, he grins broadly as we go and I nab his camera to get a shot of his first time up.

When we land at a checkpoint he sits down next to me.

“Last night? When Gus was talking about not wandering off?”

“Uh-huh?”

“I thought he was laying it on a bit thick, being sort of over-dramatic about the whole thing. But now I’ve seen the scale of the place.”

“You get why we’re so paranoid about stuff?”

He nods.

“You’d never be found out here, would you?”

“Probably not, nope.”

He rearranges his pee bottles in his bag and nods to himself.


May 22 2012

Learning will occur

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 11:58 am

Wayne, Lilli and I fly out to our first check point. Set down in the sand we run her through the aircraft, how the emergency exits work, the brace position and where to put your lunch so that the tuna in your sandwiches doesn’t ferment (answer: somewhere not in the desert).

We share some stories, familiarise ourselves with the layout of the bag and agree a plan of action if we get a tasking.

And then we all sit down.

Emergency staff have an innate skill that is rarely recognised. It’s the ability to sit and wait. It’s what we do, mostly. Just sit about and wait for something to go wrong for someone else. I honed my waiting skills in the British Red Cross, making sure at every moment that I had *something* to be doing while the horizons were clear.

That might be study, or reading, or sleeping, or practicing, or writing.

But I’ve always got something.

Wayne’s background is military and security. He’s better at sitting doing fuck all than I am.

Lilli is a foundation doctor.

Her days are…busy. She’s always running, always going.

We stop her, clip her wings and sit her in the aircraft cabin, where her brains start to short circuit.

“Come ON!” she enthuses, glaring at the mobile phone that lies on the floor between us all.

“I mean….I don’t want an ACCIDENT, but…but…..”

Wayne and I grin at each other.

The phone sits, silently, glaring back at Lilli.

She hops out of the side door and kicks sand about. Draws patterns with her toes.

“RIGHT!” she starts “Stories! What’s your worst-thing-you’ve-ever-seen?”

Between the three of us, prehospital, hospital and warfare, we come up with some dooseys.

The phone remains quiet.

She disembarks again.

“I know. We’ll play beach cricket.”

Wayne and I stare at each other, then her.

“The fuck?”

“Beach cricket! It’ll be great…”

She pulls the pry bar from the back of the medkit.

“This would work as a bat…”

Crumples up a plastic bag and starts to wrap it in gaffer tape from the side of my pack.”

“And a ball….”

We all convene, Wayne and I slide our shades down our noses.

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely, c’mon, it’ll be fun.”

“It’s thirty two degrees.”

Which means, by the way, that the sand temperature will be forty two.

The ground level will be nearly fifty.

You could cook dinner on the helo’s rails.

I have an idea; reaching into the cabin I pull the med kit out and then the spinal board.

But then I have a change of heart and swap the spinal board for the oxygen tank instead.

“Before we play cricket? You have a mission.”

“I do?”

“Yup.”

I hand her the response kit.

“Your patient is….”

I scan the horizon, pick a tree a dune or so away, about the distance we’d typically land at from a crash.

“Under the third tree, you see it?”

It’s about a hundred metres away.

“I see it.”

“Ok. Go see him, come back and then tell us you want to play beach cricket.”

She looks at the two of us, takes the kit from my hands and takes a half dozen steps.

“Are you fucking with me?”

“Nope. Think of it as environmental familiarisation.”

Wayne cuts in.

“In fairness, this terrain’s a lot flatter than normal.”

She grins and strides out into the distance.

Long tab.

The pilot leans out of the cockpit and glares at the two of us.

“You guys are assholes.”

We’re giggling too hard to pay attention.

Five minutes later Lilli is back, her boots full of sand from every step sinking into the ground as she walks.

She dumps the kit into the heli.

“So….beach cricket?”

She grabs a canteen of water from the cabin, swallows deeply.

“Fuck beach cricket.”

There we go…


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