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Eurocopter’s 2011 “Golden Hour” Award Honors International Air Rescue Team

Today, the winners of Eurocopter’s 2011 “Golden Hour” Award were honored at a ceremony in Orlando, Florida. The Golden Hour Award recognizes those who advance the use of helicopters in the air medical transport industry, either through their contributions over time or a specific activity.

This year, the award went to the latter, a heroic international air medical crew made up of Captain Daniel Aufdenblatten and rescue specialist/mountain guide Richard Lehner from Air Zermatt in Switzerland, and the late Captain Sabin Basnyat, who had been the chief pilot of Fishtail Air in Nepal.

The team successfully used a long-line to rescue climbers from Annapurna I, the 10th highest mountain in the world.

On April 29th of last year, Aufdenblatten, Basnyat, and Lehner rescued a team of Spanish mountain climbers who were stranded high atop a steep area of Mount Annapurna, one of the world’s tallest mountains. The climbers were stuck at a precarious altitude of 22,800 feet, on a mountain 26,550 feet tall at its highest elevation.

Captain Sabin Basnyat, with his extensive knowledge of Nepal and the Himalayan range, was given the job of organizing the rescue operations. His company Fishtail Air operates four rescue choppers in Nepal and is currently engaged in a cooperative agreement with Air Zermatt, one of the world’s most experienced operators regarding mountain air rescue. It’s an international partnership that has proven to be very providential for the people they’ve rescued — in some of the world’s most unforgiving terrain.

Basnyat knew that the highest long line rescue operation ever attempted, requiring a medical helicopter to hover at an altitude of nearly 23,000 feet, with the potential for blustery winds and turbulence near the side of the mountain, was a feat that required exceptional skill and proven experience. He called upon Switzerland’s Captain Aufdenblatten to pilot the aircraft. Aufdenblatten flew the same type of hoist-equipped Eurocopter AS 350 B3 “Squirrel” at Air Zematt that Fishtail Air operated in Nepal.

With no time to spare, Aufdenblatten and rescue specialist Lehner made the journey to Annapurna I, located in the heart of Nepal. Working as a well trained team, they flew a Fishtail Air AS 350 through the Himalayas, almost to the top of the world’s 10th highest mountain, where they found the stranded mountaineering team. The mountaineers were suffering from both snow blindness and freezing wounds. Setting down the aircraft was not possible on the rugged, snow-covered terrain, so the captain hovered at over 22,800 feet while the long line was used for the rescue. One by one, the climbers were prepared and hoisted aboard the rescue helicopter, as the pilot fought against Himalayan wind and frost.

Once the patients were secured in the aircraft, they were flown to the base camp, located at 13,000 feet, where they received emergency first aid. The international air medical team successfully carried out their rescue operations on Mount Annapurna, saving the lives of the mountain climbers, within just 36 hours.

Aufdenblatten, Lehner, and Basnyat were honored for their bravery and skill at the Helicopter Association International “HELI-EXPO” in Orlando, Florida today during HAI’s 2011 “Salute to Excellence” awards. The president of HAI, Matt Zuccaro, described the 2011 honorees as going “above and beyond” in their efforts.

Sadly, Captain Basnyat lost his life while on a mission to rescue two mountaineers from Mount Ama Dubla on November 7, 2010. After safely rescuing Danial Gottler, a German mountain climber, he and senior technician Purna Awale were on their way to pick up Kazuya Hiraide, a Japanese mountain climber, when the aircraft experienced an accident. Both crew members lost their lives in the crash.

After hearing of the crash, Fishtail Air quickly deployed another helicopter to continue the mission and successfully rescued Mr. Hiraide.

Air Ambulance Weekly would like to congratulate Captain Aufdenblatten and Richard Lehner of Air Zermatt and the late Captain Basnyat of Fishtail Air for their bravery and dedication in the face of truly dangerous conditions. Has anyone you know in the air medical industry gone “above and beyond”? Leave a comment below using your Facebook account, or e-mail us and let us know their story.

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