On a wing and a prayer

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On a wing and a prayer

One Coast Guard member died and three others went missing after their helicopter crashed into the sea near Gageo Island off Korea’s southwestern coast on Friday while trying to transport an emergency patient. The four had been among the first to arrive for the rescue mission when the Sewol ferry sank last April.

Capt. Choi Seung-ho, 52, and co-pilot Baek Dong-heum, 46, were veteran servicemen who served 20 years in the Navy. Emergency rescue member Park Geun-su, 29, who died after being discovered unconscious in the ocean, was engaged to get married later this year. Jang Yong-hoon, 29, joined the Coast Guard about a year ago and he and his wife had their first child in February 2014.

Weather conditions were bad and fog around the island was thick. A local clinic on the island asked for emergency transportation to take a 7-year-old with acute appendicitis to a mainland hospital, but the local fire station refused to send its helicopter due to bad weather. The medical authority then contacted the Coast Guard for help and Choi decided to go on with the flight.

Gageo Island is at Korea’s southwestern tip, where clear days are rare. It is the first Korean territory to be hit by a typhoon. The island has no landing sites. On a clear day, landing is no problem. But at night or on a foggy day, pilots must try to land using their experience, training and intuition. Islanders tried to guide the ill-fated chopper with flashlights, but were of no use amidst such heavy fog.

Gageo Island is 145 kilometers (90 miles) away from Mokpo on the mainland. The medical helicopter used by South Jeolla to carry emergency patients does not service the island. Ferries, which take about four and a half hours to get to the island, are often cancelled because of poor conditions. Helicopters are the only emergency help. But as the accident shows, helicopter operations without any safety backup can result in bigger mishaps.

The government must come up with ways to ensure helicopter flight safety and emergency medical service to distant islanders. The South Jeolla government said it will invest 1 billion won ($885,000) to build a landing site for helicopters and run medical choppers to Gageo Island. It is shameful that actions only take place after human losses are suffered.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 16, page 30

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