UK Airman 311.
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Three Swiss Cougar helicopters landed at Haifa’s Techni Air Force Base on
Sunday, the latest addition to an international aid effort that has packed the
airspace over Mount Carmel, and left the wildfire that has raged since Thursday
all but extinguished.
“We don’t have the big aircraft to send like the
Russians and the Americans, but we’ll send the Cougars and we have 50 people on
the ground to help,” Swiss Ambassador Walter Haffner said at the base on
Haffner added that the Swiss personnel have a great deal of
experience fighting fires in the heavily wooded mountains at home, where
traditional fire trucks can’t reach. He said his countrymen planned to stay as
long as they are needed.
Techni is principally a training facility. Base
commander Col. Danny Frankel said it had never seen anything like this weekend’s
effort, which has included the participation of at least seven countries from
Great Britain to Azerbaijan that have sent firefighting aircraft to battle the
“We’ve never taken part in an operation like this, but
it’s gone off without a hitch and the cooperation between our personnel and
those of the foreign detachments has been exemplary,” he said.
Frankel, a Royal Air Force Bell 412 helicopter was preparing to land, after an
hour and a half in the air, in which Flight Lieutenant Ewan Johnstone and his
men made eight runs from the sea to the fire. Cables from the helicopter carry a
bucket that resembles a giant balloon, and fills in moments with 1,100 liters of
sea water that it can drop with precision from low altitude.
airspace has been very busy, we’ve had more aircraft here than I’ve seen
anywhere before, but the coordination has been pretty good even though you have
different aircrafts, different levels and languages,” Johnstone
Johnstone was met on the tarmac by Israel Air Force commander
Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, who praised the British airmen’s contribution and
expressed the gratitude of the Israeli people.
“This is certainly the
worst fire that I have faced. Many people I’ve spoken to have said that they
have faced bigger fires than this, but none with this sort of intensity,”
“I’ve never been in a situation with this many
nationalities working together so successfully,” he said, though he did add that
it has been difficult at times.
Johnstone said that over the past three
days the RAF helicopter squadron has made 20 sorties, and that while the fire
has for the most part been controlled, he and his men are staying in Israel for
the time being.
“We haven’t heard anything in particular about when we
will be able to come home, but we have said from the beginning that our orders
are to stay here as long as we are needed,” he said.