Swiss, UK airmen vow to stay as long as needed

"Many people I’ve spoken to have said that they have faced bigger fires than this, but none with this sort of intensity,” British airman says.

UK Airman 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
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 Sunday.
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 Carmel inferno.
“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.
Behind 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.
“The 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 said.
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,” Johnstone said.
“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.