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Down the Line of Duty: Helicopter Rappelling in Australia

Down the Line of Duty: Helicopter Rappelling in Australia

Rappelling is more than an adventure activity for thrill seekers; it’s an incredibly important skill that can be used to save lives.

Most of us have seen people rappelling from helicopters before. Whether it’s a rescue operation that made the news or defence personnel entering a difficult-to-access combat zone, rappelling from a helicopter is certainly a breathtaking site. It’s also incredibly technical – most people fail to realise the level of skill involved when it comes to these sorts of complex manoeuvres.

Here, we take a look at three different instances where helicopter rappelling is often required.

Australian Defence Force

In the defence force, a helicopter rappel is often used if the area requiring access isn’t suitable for a proper landing or if urgent access is required. It allows defence force personnel to descend mid-air from the helicopter, providing much needed ground assistance.

The Australian Army uses three different types of helicopters: the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, the Eurocopter Tiger and the Sikorsky Black Hawk. The Black Hawk provides air mobility for troops and equipment in battle zones, and is the helicopter most commonly used for missions where rappelling is required.

Away from war zones, this aircraft can also aid search and rescue and flood relief efforts. In fact, in 2014 a Black Hawk helicopter was used in a rescue mission in North Carolina, US. ABC News reported that a climber was rappelling down a cliff face when he fell. Rescuers then rappelled from the Black Hawk to the ledge on which the man was stuck, allowing them to winch him to safety.

a group of airplanes flying over a fire
The ADF uses rappelling techniques to access areas restricted by rough terrain.

Fire Fighting

Australia is well known for its hot, dry climate – and subsequently, it’s predisposition to bushfires. Imagine rappelling out of a helicopter into a wilderness area in order to fight wildfires; it’s an incredibly scary thought, but people do it!

Helicopter rappelling has long been a tactic used by fire fighters since the 1950s, as it makes it possible to gain access to remote areas that cannot be accessed by a motor vehicle. By rappelling into these sorts of areas, fire fighters are able to save precious time and get small fires under control before they get out of hand.

Here in Victoria, a fire fighting rappel crew has been in place for 30 years. At present, there are 28 specially trained rappel fire fighters who spend their summers battling remote bushfires. In 2013 The Age published an article detailing the background of some of these fire fighters. At the time the article was written, Sally Reiners was the youngest crew member at just 23 years of age; while her winters are spent mustering cattle, each summer (November to April) she travels to Victoria to battle the inevitable blazes often started by lightning strikes in remote areas. Fellow rappel fire fighter Craig Wilson enjoys an endless summer; he battles Victorian blazes over the southern hemisphere summer before heading to Canada to tackle wild fires during their warmer months.

Rappel fire fighters are a crucial fire fighting resource. Rappelling into remote areas to fight fires requires extensive training (for example, a course such as those offered by Kestrel) – and it’s certainly not a job for the faint-hearted! You can find out more about becoming part of Victoria’s fire fighting rappel crew by reading the Victorian Government’s brochure.

Rappel fire fighters are used to combat remote bushfires.

Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter

Perhaps the best-known helicopter in Australia, the Westpac chopper patrols this country’s beautiful – yet sometimes dangerous – coastline. This iconic helicopter service is considered to be the longest running search and rescue helicopter service in the world and saves an average of 2,000 people per year.

Here in Victoria the local Westpac helicopters have bases in Moorabbin and Geelong, allowing them to monitor the coastline between Waratah in the east and Apollo Bay in the west. They perform scheduled aerial patrols of the coast from mid-November through to Easter weekend, as this is when the beaches are at their busiest.

Although it’s known as a surf rescue service, the Westpac choppers often perform land-based rescues as well. These helicopters complete a wide range of different missions throughout the year, from winching people out of rough seas through to attending car accidents. In certain situations where the helicopter is unable to land (for example, sea rescues) specially trained crewmen rappel from the helicopter via a winch to access those in trouble.

These helicopters regularly assist the State Emergency Service (SES), Australian Search and Rescue (SAR), the police and also the rural fire service.

A rescue from a helicopter in Dinas Dinlle from the water
The Westpac helicopter is used for a wide range of rescue operations.

All in the line of duty!

Helicopter rappelling certain isn’t a task for the faint hearted. Whether they are rappelling into battle zones in the Middle East, controlling remote bushfires or plucking hapless fishermen from the ocean, those who choose this adrenaline-fuelled line of work are certainly braver than your average human being.

Here at Rap Jumping, we can give you a taste of what it’s like to descend a rope from great heights. Rap jumping – which is essentially a commercialised form of forward-facing rappelling – is a great way to push your boundaries. And if you’re not one for extreme sports? We also offer backward-facing abseiling to help you ease into it!