Air and sea rescues (ASRs) have become an integral part of the transportation sector, and specialised techniques are now available to help save people's lives in cases of accidents, piracy/hijack attacks or natural disasters. ASRs often require special equipment, besides seaplanes, helicopters, rescue boats, ships, and even submarines from the military and civilian sectors.
Here are a few stories that have evoked tears, awe and hope, and even inspired books and movies.
The most heroic sea rescue of all times is the story of Ernest Shackleton's brave attempts to save the stranded crew of the Endurance in 1915 in harsh Antarctic conditions. Endurance was one of the two ships that attempted to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, from one coast to the other via the South Pole. The ship spent the winter of 1915 caught in pack ice. It later was crushed and sank, leaving its 28-man crew stranded on an uninhabited, inhospitable island. Shackleton made an 800-mile journey in an open boat to South Georgia, with five others, and came back with support to rescue the crew. No lives were lost and Shackleton's rescue effort became a legend in itself.
In 1952, the SS Pendleton, a 503ft oil tanker, split into two off the coast of Massachusetts, USA, leaving the crew members with just hours to live before their ship went down. Four coast guardsmen launched their 36-foot wooden motorised life boat into the sea to save the crew members. In violent, rolling seas, the Pendleton crew descended down a rope ladder and into the coast guard boat. All the crew members, except one, were rescued in the mission. This rescue mission is considered one of the greatest small boat rescues in the history of the American Coast Guard. This daring rescue inspired a Disney movie, The Finest Hours.
In late March 2008, the American Coast Guard managed to rescue 42 people from the floundering fishing trawler, Alaska Ranger, plucking the survivors from the bitter-cold Bering Sea. Five people died in the incident. The rescue operation was executed in the night amid 20-foot waves, 30-knot winds, minus-24-degree wind chill and snow showers. The rescues were mostly carried out by two coast guard helicopters aided by coast guard rescue swimmers, who were dropped into the water, risking their own lives in the freezing waters to help survivors into lifting slings or baskets.
Air rescues are rarer as disasters often end in tragedy, such as the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight 370 somewhere in the Indian Ocean. An example of an amazing rescue is the famous river landing of US Airways Flight 1549. On January 15, 2009, when taking off from La Guardia airport with Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles at the controls, the Airbus A320 hit a flock of birds which disabled both engines. Unable to reach any nearby airport without engine power, Sully managed to land the aircraft safely on the Hudson River, and the crew evacuated all passengers without a single casualty. Sully's feat was amazing because he had only theoretical knowledge about landing a plane on water — a crippled plane with no engine power. Additionally, he avoided a possibly catastrophic crash landing in heavily populated Manhattan city and safely landed the plane in River Hudson, close to ferry boat operations, thus raising the chances of rescue of passengers from the freezing Hudson waters. Sully's presence of mind and quick reactions have inspired a movie named after him.
- Perhaps the most famous piracy attempt was the October 2009 attack by four Somali pirates on the Maersk Alabama, which was carrying 17,000 tonnes of cargo in the Indian Ocean. Negotiations between the US Navy and the pirates broke down after a five-day standoff. Finally, acting with President Obama's authorisation and in the belief that the hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, was in imminent danger of being killed by captors armed with pistols and AK-47s, snipers on the US navy destroyer Bainbridge rescued Capt. Phillips by opening fire and killing three of the captors. The amazing rescue inspired the 2013 movie "Captain Phillips", starring Tom Hanks. More significantly, the attack subsequently led to merchant ship captains being given the authority for the first time to carry firearms on board. A new kind of sea activity was born as merchant ships and tankers began to hire armed escort ships.
- One of the most recent sea rescues happened in November 2016, when 23 crew members of Saga Sky were rescued by helicopters and Coast Guard ships after their ship collided with a barge full of stones and lost power and control over navigation. This happened in the English Channel, off the coast of Dover. Two coast guard helicopters airlifted 11 crew members from the deck of the Saga Sky. The remaining 12 crew members helped to move the vessel to a safe anchorage with the help of a tug.
- Cargo ships have also been rescued in daring operations. The towing of Modern Express, a roll-on/roll-off cargo vessel, to Bilbao port is one such exciting instance. Modern Express had lost stability and tilted due to rough weather in the Bay of Biscay on January 26, 2016. The crew was airlifted to safety from the cargo vessel, which was transporting wood and construction machinery. A cause of concern was that the ship's 300 tonnes of fuel would pose an environmental hazard if it ran aground. The first attempt to tow the ship was a disaster; the tow line broke. As the ship looked to crash into the shoreline on February 1, 2016, and pollute the seas, the second towing attempt proved successful. Modern Express was safely towed into Bilbao port on February 3, 2016.
- After being stuck in ice for what seemed like an eternity, 52 scientists aboard the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy were rescued by Chinese helicopters in January 2014. The ship, which had scientists, media and students on board, was returning from a month-long scientific expedition to East Antarctica. Since Christmas Eve, the ship had got stuck in thick ice and could not make its way forward. The ice was so thick that two ice breakers which were pressed into service to break the ice got stuck in the ice themselves. Although the ship and its crew were well-prepared for such a situation, it proved yet again that sailing in the Antarctic could be very unpredictable and dangerous.
Air and sea rescues are a testimony to the grit, courage and valour of people who put their lives on the line to save others. Rescue missions call for heroes, most of whom remain unsung.