Down to the wire: zipline heroes save couple in dangling plane
There was no other way to get to them as their plane hung precariously 300m above the ground
With two people suspended about 300m above ground as their light aircraft dangled precariously from the Pilanesberg zipline, a mountain rescuer had to fight fire with fire – ziplining to reach them.
Rob Thomas, from the School of Mountain Leadership in Pretoria, was the rescuer tasked with travelling down the zipline to get the couple out safely. Recalling how the drama unfolded last Friday, he said the first emergency call did not give a clear indication of what was happening.
However, once it became clear that the aircraft was suspended from a zipline, the Mountain Rescue crew, ER24, Netcare, Sun City fire department, Sun City health and safety, and the zipline operator glided into action.
The couple, who were on anti-poaching patrol duty in Sun City, North West, got into trouble when the plane hit the zipline and its propeller assembly became attached to the cable.
“The couple were volunteering and it was their first time in the area. They flew into the cable and it was a massive strike,” said Thomas.
The first emergency call was made to air traffic control at 8.30am, and it was “vague, we did not understand what the problem was”, Thomas said.
“Only around 10am did we get an indication of what the problem was. They were not stuck on a power line but a zipline. There was an issue of how we can get there efficiently. We then got a police helicopter from Johannesburg to Sun City,” he said.
When they arrived they were greeted by a challenging picture.
“They were stuck 100 feet up. Reaching them was difficult, so we flew up and inspected the situation from the air. It was risky to perform an aerial rescue so we went with getting them through the cable,” he said.
It took them about half an hour to plan the rescue but it “took long to execute it”.
“My biggest worry was that I had to be careful not to cause imbalance, which would cause the aircraft to drop, the wind might dislodge it or the cable might bounce. At first we could not tell what was holding it to the line, but it turned out the cable had been hooked under a large nut beneath the propeller. There was no guarantee of success.
“I was nervous, not for my life because I know what do. But I was worried about them. Fortunately, it all went well,” Thomas added.
When he got to the plane the wind started to blow. “I waited for it to settle down. Then I finally got to the aircraft. Inside, the couple were forced to lie on their backs, feet in the air. They were in that position for about five hours, too scared to move for fear of upsetting the balance of the plane or falling out. The lap-strap seatbelt kept them secure.”
The husband was closest to the exit. “He pleaded with me to take his wife out first, but that was too risky. It was a slow process. I had to take him out first else it would have resulted in a change in balance. They did everything I asked them to do, they were calm and cooperative. We got them out safely.”
And in the nick of time – shortly afterwards, a thunderstorm hit the area, Thomas said.
On Friday, Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre spokesperson Santjie White said the incident was called in at about 8.30am and rescue teams – from Mountain Club SA and the police’s air wing – were called in to help. But getting the two occupants down would not be easy‚ and a second team had to be dispatched with more specialist equipment.
All the while, the couple in the plane remained in danger.
Ultimately‚ after what White described as a “very difficult‚ technical rescue operation”‚ the two were carried out to safety.
“They were hanging on the line for quite a while. It’s the shock and all that stuff. They were incredibly lucky. But there are no injuries‚” he said.
Russel Meiring‚ spokesperson for paramedic service ER24‚ said: “Rescue personnel equipped both [occupants] with harnesses and began to lower them to the awaiting paramedics 300m below. Once safely on the ground‚ paramedics found that both had fortunately escaped injury.
“They explained to paramedics that the only thing they could do was not to move as they were scared that the aircraft would fall.”