Rescue 117 and Rescue 115
Rob Cawley, director of new six part documentary series ‘Rescue 117’ to be shown on RTÉ in September 2011, tells us how he spent six months working with crew of the Waterford based maritime rescue helicopter.
During this time he filmed over 20 rescue missions but first he had to undergo full training which made him the unofficial 5th member of the crew.
When RTE producer Janet Frawley phoned to ask if I was interested in the job of directing a new documentary series, which would follow the exploits of the rescue helicopter based in Waterford, it very much appealed to me.
During the alleged boom years so much of Irish television schedules had, to me become a nauseating array of programmes designed to show you how to keep up with and be better than the Jonse’s. Now that everyone was slip-sliding with the Smiths, genuine heroes on our TV screens could provide a psychological and spiritual boost which might help us cope and come together as a nation. Rescue 117 would surely do that.
I also had a more personal reason for almost biting Janet’s hand off for the opportunity. Earlier that year my girlfriend had lost her brother to the sea in County Clare. The support and assistance the rescue services, both voluntary and professional, had given to her family deserved to be applauded. Pointing a camera at some of them would go some way to indirectly thanking them for their passion and their compassion.
So, I was more than happy to accept the gig. My first meeting with the Helicopter crew was revealing. We were installing cameras into the helicopter itself, a Sikorsky 61N. Although designed in 1961 it’s still one of the most trusted helicopters in Search and Rescue worldwide. It has a sealed hull optimised for maritime operations and it was a big mechanical beast of a machine. There were to be 5 onboard cameras – one bullet camera in the cockpit, one in the cabin, one on each of the paramedic winchmens helmets and a fifth infra red camera which the coastguard already used on the outside of the helicopter known as a FLIR. Occasionally I would operate a sixth camera on board, during missions. On this my first meeting with the rescue crew they made it perfetly clear to me what they expected. I had to become one of the crew. Almost like a 5th member. This didn’t mean that I had to risk my life or to rescue anyone – it just meant that I had to learn how not to get in the way.
They started training me right away. In case of a call out I would have to learn to to put on my safety clothing quickly. This included a fire proof flight suit, an immersion suit to protect me from the freezing conditions of the Irish sea, a helmet, life jacket, and a communications systems. These alongside with the filming equipment, tapes and cameras, all had to be ready to go at a moments notice. Typically a helicipter had to be airbourne in under 15 minutes from an emergency call out – and these guys usually did it faster… much faster. If I wasn’t ready and safe I would stay on the ground. I had to learn how to avoid getting my head chopped off by the rotor blades.
Then there was what’s called the “Dunker” training. Located in the he National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI) in Ringaskiddy this training is intended to prepare you for possible emergencies during over-water flights. The training involves being strapped into a metal “dunker” and simulates what would happen in a real crash. As in you get plunged under freezing cold water and rolled around upside down. To make the training realistic, you wear full flight gear, including flight suits, boots, and you are strapped in. The idea is to escape the hull 5 times without panicking or taking a lung full of water. Once I passed this I was cleared to go on missions with the helicopter crew.
The other aspect of being part of the crew was personality. There is no way you can be in a SAR base and display any signs that you think your job as a director is important. Any sign of ego would be merclilessly crushed under the boot of banter.
All told I spent 6 months with the crew of Rescue 117 and we filmed over twenty rescue missions. Despite having the constant annoyance of the lens of several cameras almost permanenty in their faces, they always ensured that I was safe and that I was made feel welcome… which is hugely important during the hours when you are waiting for the scramble phone to ring and you’re running out for a call out!
Rescue 115 the follow up series to Rescue 117 aired on RTE ONE in Autumn 2011
View some clips here