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Shipping World

Feb 11, 2010
Author: Terry Hutson

New helicopter for Durban port

Durban’s new port helicopter, ZS-HDP has just touched down for the first time at the TNPA heliport next to the Ocean Terminal Building. Picture Terry Hutson

Sporting a bright red/orange aft section, the Port of Durban’s new helicopter arrived on Friday (5 February 2010). After more than 10 years of service the former Agusta 109 marine helicopter used to transfer marine pilots on to or from ships off Durban was to be replaced with a newer and more powerful model, the R75 million AgustaWestland AW109S Grand, a two-engine 8-seat helicopter with twice the carrying capacity of its predecessor.

According to Port Manager Ricky Bhikraj, the arrival of the new aircraft showed that Transnet National Ports Authority was serious about improving turnaround times and operating efficiencies at the port.

“This is why we invested in a helicopter service in the first place (Richards Bay and Durban were among the first ports in the world to use helicopters for transferring marine pilots), and it is why we are now replacing the original aircraft, which has reached its replacement date, with an even more modern and more powerful version that will continue in the fine tradition that has been established. We have also recently invested in two new pilot boats costing R41 million for the two, that were built here in South Africa and provide a back up to the helicopter service.”

He said that one of these boats was currently on loan to the port of Cape Town. “Cape Town has made application to have two new pilot boats built,” he said.

Following the arrival of the new helicopter, the East Coast now has three aircraft available for marine services. This is until Transnet takes a decision on the disposal or otherwise of the older Durban machine, but in the meantime it remains in service and available.

The marine helicopter services are operated in a partnership between TNPA which owns the aircraft, and Durban-based Acher Aviation, which helped pioneer marine transfers. The partnership is a close one that has helped pioneer marine pilot transfers and is today regarded as one of the most experienced operations in the world.

Something not generally known or fully appreciated is just how much of an asset to Durban and Richards Bay the port helicopters have proved. By operating a 24-hour service they not only improve efficiencies but are immediately available for emergencies and have taken part in numerous successful operations that might otherwise have resulted in a considerable loss of life.

The most spectacular was probably that of the burning cargo ship JOLLY RUBINO, in which the Richards Bay port helicopter flew at night and in poor weather conditions to rescue the entire crew from the fiercely burning ship, but numerous other rescues and flights of assistance have taken place with little fuss or fanfare. Some have involved flying considerable distances in bad weather and at night as far away as the lower South Coast to assist or rescue the crew from yachts or fishing boats in distress.

The choppers have even been involved in landside operations including the recent fire involving a motor showroom in Durban’s CBD.

But it’s not only about rescue and glamour. The port helicopters are in service to render a more efficient and quicker means of getting marine pilots on and off ships outside our ports. In this manner they enable much faster turnaround times – a pilot transfer by boat can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half whereas by helicopter the operation can be completed within ten minutes, often less.

In addition they are available to assist shipping with crew exchanges at sea, such as the three drill ships that visited Durban in the past 12 months. Each of these vessels had about 120 crew to take off and another 120 to place on board and the ships had too deep a draught to enter port. Each operation involved more than 40 flights.

The helicopters also transfer personnel to the single buoy mooring off Isipingo in between their normal missions and perform other similar services to ships not entering port. With the new aircraft able to seat eight, as against the four of the older chopper, further improvements will now be possible.