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March 2019

Cooperating in the sky to save lives at sea

by Matthew Beattie

The Netherlands Coastguard is responsible for patrolling around 451 kilometers of Dutch coastline and more than 57,000 square kilometers of the North Sea. Their missions include everything from search and rescue operations to fisheries management and border patrol to pollution control. Such varied responsibilities demand a lot of technical equipment and flexible, capable aircraft, as well as supreme cooperation on the ground, at sea and in the air.

Even in the summer, the North Sea does not get much warmer than sixteen degrees Celsius (60.8 ºF). Winter water temperatures can be as low as six degrees Celsius (42.8 ºF) and even colder at the surface. Human survival times at such frigid temperatures can be measured in minutes – especially if weather conditions are poor and the person in the water is not wearing a survival suit. This is what makes search and rescue (SAR) missions at sea so time-critical. The quicker somebody is located in the water, the sooner they can be picked up and the better their chances of survival. The flexible design of the Dornier 228 makes it the ideal aircraft for the varied missions of the Netherlands Coastguard; however, it is especially well suited to the challenge of finding people at sea.

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Observer Dennis cross-checks instruments during a rescue.

Eyes in the sky

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Dutch Coastguard leaves Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

One of the two Dornier 228 aircraft belonging to the Netherlands Coastguard was already airborne and three hours into an observation mission when the call came through that a kite surfer was missing. “We were flying in the north at the time,” recalls Haico, a Dornier captain with five years of service in the Netherlands Coastguard. “The kite surfer had gone missing in the south, so we had to fly for around thirty minutes to get to the right place. We got there just as the report came in that he was safe.”

Designed and equipped for the mission

Had the missing kite surfer still been in the water, the Netherlands Coastguard Dornier 228 would have been his best chance of being found quickly. The aircraft is faster than a helicopter, so it takes less time to reach the search zone. It is equipped with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera that is capable of detecting human body heat in poor light conditions. Four protruding observation bubble windows make it possible for the team onboard the aircraft to look directly down into the water, while high wings ensure unimpeded views to the side. Thanks to the volume and rectangular shape of the Dornier fuselage’s cross-section, the aircraft has space both for large operator console(s) and specialist equipment to support a range of SAR and routine missions. The ability of the aircraft to fly low and slow makes it especially effective for locating people in the water. “Detection is one of the primary tasks in search and rescue,” Haico explains. “However, we can also do air-commander operations. For example, when there is a mass evacuation of a vessel such as a cruise ship, we can take a command role and coordinate all of the helicopters and rescue craft. We can also drop a seven-person life raft if there are people in the water and no vessel is nearby to rescue them.”

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Dutch Coastguard patrols North Sea.

On call 24/7 for search and rescue

Netherlands Coastguard Dornier 228 crews usually do one four-hour patrol per day or two flights of three hours; however, they must also be ready to scramble if an emergency call comes in. The crews sleep at their base when they are on call, so they can take to the air quickly. Non-emergency missions can involve everything from fisheries surveillance and pollution control to drug enforcement and border patrol. “We fly the North Sea waters of the Dutch Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Every day it is a different mission, but we are on call 24/7 for search and rescue,” Haico explains. “That is one of our biggest tasks.” Covering an area of 57,000 square kilometers that extends over 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) beyond the coast of the Netherlands, the Dutch EEZ is actually larger than the country itself. Enforcing maritime law and keeping waters safe and pollution-free across such a vast area requires an aircraft that is both economical and capable of flying for long periods of time. The Dornier 228 fits the bill on both counts. “We normally fly with a crew of two pilots and two observers – plus all of the equipment,” Haico explains. The aircraft is fitted with two computer workstations in the back and carries everything it needs for its varied missions. “With a full crew of four on board and the equipment, we can fly for around five hours and fifteen minutes.”

Cooperation on board and across borders

Dornier pilots fly with two observers from a range of government agencies, including the Royal Dutch Navy, Customs or the Ministry of Transport. “The crew in the back is combined. One is a military police observer and the other an observer from a different government ministry,” Haico explains. Cooperation is central to the success of Coastguard missions, whether the mission is on board the aircraft, working with rescue vessels at sea or with ministries on the ground. The Dutch Coastguard also works closely with their counterparts in neighboring countries as well as with European agencies. “We do cooperate with international partners: for example, we fly over the part of the North Sea known as the German Bight. We also fly on a weekly basis above German seas in German airspace. We work with the UK once or twice a year monitoring flights in the UK and Norwegian oil fields as part of the Bonn Agreement.” This is a cooperation initiative between the EU and North Sea countries that aims to combat pollution in the North Sea. “We use the Dornier 228’s SLAR (Side Looking Airborne Radar) to check whether rigs are discharging anything into the sea,” Haico adds.

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Pilots performs preflight checklist.

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Air Marshaller communicates with Coastguard pilots.

Humanitarian mission

The Dutch Coastguard also played a vital lifesaving role in the Mediterranean Sea at the height of the European migrant crisis of 2015-16, when thousands of desperate refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq and a number of African nations took to ramshackle and unseaworthy craft to make the perilous sea crossing to Europe. As part of the Netherlands contribution to the EU FRONTEX European Border and Coastguard Agency, the Dutch government deployed a Coastguard Dornier 228 and its crew to Italy to patrol the Mediterranean. “We flew from [NATO airbase] Sigonella as well as the Italian islands of Santa Maria and Lampedusa,” Haico says. “Our task was to look for refugee boats in the water so the people on board could be picked up by rescue vessels before they got into difficulties. These missions are run and financed by the EU. It is important lifesaving work and very rewarding.”

Saving lives at sea a top priority

Back in the Netherlands, saving lives is the number one priority for the Dutch Coastguard. Even when the Dornier crew is in the middle of another mission – such as monitoring North Sea fisheries – they will drop everything to go to the aid of people in danger at sea. Such was the case with the example of the missing kite surfer who turned up safe and sound. “As it happens, we got a second call just fifteen minutes after the earlier search and rescue mission had been called off,” Haico says. Coincidentally, the victim was another kite surfer. “We spotted his equipment abandoned in the water, but there was no sign of the man himself. We coordinated rescue craft and directed them toward the equipment, before searching the waters for the missing person. We were still searching when the call came in that the missing person had swum back to shore and was safe.”

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Observer Dennis visually checks sailing ship through sliding door.

Even if some calls do turn out to be false alarms, as in this case, the Dutch Coastguard treats all search and rescue calls seriously. The North Sea has claimed countless lives over the centuries, so surely the best outcome of any search and rescue mission is to learn that a missing person is safe and well – regardless of whether they are pulled from the water by a rescue team, or they could swim to shore themselves.

Find out more about the Dutch Coastguard: 


Discover the Dutch Coastguard in action!

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