The Helicopters Of Life

English / Journalism / December 25, 2010

He would knock at their door six years later. He was a stranger. They would need some time to understand who he was. Six years ago when they transported him by the emergency helicopter medical service, he could not be distinguished. He was injured in an accident in a bad road close to Burrel. He was almost disfigured. But they brought him alive in Tirana. And he made it. Six years later, he had come simply to acknowledge them for saving his life. Altogether they are six helicopter pilots who undertake hundreds of trips yearly under the logo of the Health Ministry. Their mission is to rescue people’s lives. As humanity is a vocabulary word, whose meaning is getting out of use, for them, this word means the same. Gratitude overwhelms us at seeing on various TV chronicles how they manage to bring seriously hurt people to the hospital. But knowing them closely is completely another sensation. So, I was introduced to two of them, the commander of the salvation unit, Albert Xhafaj and the pilot of this unit, Osman Kushta. Both they were extraordinary.

The Health Care Unit

This unit was created on March 25, 1995. Before this was taken care by a military helicopter, adapted for the sick people. This helicopter was made available soon after the difficult winter of 1985 when many military helicopters flew over the snowy mountains to drop food and transport the seriously ill people, isolated from the snow. In 1995, the then government made possible the purchasing of some helicopters and the creation of the service unit. Four Alouette-3SA-319B helicopters, French products, were bought in Switzerland. This kind of helicopter, actually no longer available, is designed for mountainous terrains and can land everywhere despite the limited terrain of conditions. Osmani adds that this kind of helicopter is known as “Europe’s Mule”.

A Life In The Air

Osman Kushta is having his last days as a pilot. He will soon be in pension. His first piloting dates back to May 1969. He confesses that he has had the chance to fly with state and private helicopters. He has a 26-yer experience in military aviation while worked for one year with a US company in the first years of democracy. In 1999, he started working as part of the health care team. After so many working years, he feels calm and satisfied with his own work. The secret of his success, according to him, lays on the team work. He recalls thousands of nice moments of saving people’s lives. But the most particular one involved the transporting of an accidenting woman and a child from Himara who had their legs in plaster. The pilots were forced to keep them on their shoulders throughout the way to Tirana Hospital as this was the only position they could carry them. He says that he never had had any problems with the patients.

The Unit’s Commander

Albert Xhafaj is a tall man who is not simply a pilot. Also he is an artist. With his own camera, he has fixed hundreds of landscapes, people and traditions. Like the rest of the team, he likes the job, too. He feels good with it and with his colleagues. They make up an harmonic team, consisted of pilots and technicians and a modest administration. Albert gets orders or duties from a personality in the health world, Petro Mersini. Under the care of the Health Minister, Petrit Vasili and the chief of the Cabinet, Petro Mersini, the team flies all over Albania to transport the sick or the injured or sometimes even medicines. He started working as a helicopter pilot in 1982 as part of the Farka regiment. He is the oldest pilot of this unit. He joined it since the very first day it was created in 1995. Such a work was not alien to him. Before he had worked with the salvation unit of the Defence Ministry. First assignment was done by him on the very first day those helicopters were made available. The destination was Bajram Curri. He confesses that as a rule, the helicopters fly under good conditions but however, there are cases when they are forced to be up in the air even when the weather conditions do not promise so.

Playing With Life

There are many difficult cases which they prefer not to remember. Such trips offer no choices. Neither the day, nor the hour or the sun have been planned. As the sick people heavily moan during the transport, all they wish for is to bring them alive to Tirana. In mid-December, they carried out one of the most difficult flights of the recent times. They were flying from Palasa to Tirana. Osman confessed that it was so dark and the weather was so bad that they seemed to be at the bottom of the sea.
With shrewdness, they answer my question about the most difficult terrain in Albania. “The unknown terrain remains the most difficult one.” When the bad weather conditions have categorically prevented the helicopters from intervening have been the only cases when they have done nothing. Lately they have often flown to Shkodra to send aids and transport the sick people. The pilot is a very attentive person. They would say that a pilot is characterized by a concentration of will and an ability to face danger. A pilot needs to carry out 25 to 47 actions per second. According to them, the flying is a series of measures. They confirm that the Authority of Civil Aviation is a good prop in their job.

The Team

They have flown as many as 500 hours during 2010, meaning hundreds of emergency and rescued people’s lives. These happened even with the flood of Shkodra. The SOS helicopters, the military ones and the SOS helicopters from Turkey, Italy, and other country were 24 hours in Shkodra to help the people there and to prevent this natural disaster from becoming a tragedy. Their team consists of 6 pilots and three technicians. As you look at the helicopters hangar, what strikes is that everything is clean and tidy. Jorgji Cauli, trained in Switzerland in operating with such helicopters, is one of the three technicians who deal with the preparation of helicopters for such tasks. In one of the last cases, one of the helicopters was supplied with sleighs which prevent them from plunging into snow. Jorgji Cauli says that they respond to the work demands at any time. It is not known when this Great thing we define as Life might joke with one of us. That’s why the helicopters should be ready for flying. In many cases, they fly to the remote areas to get women who become two on their return: babies and their moms. Because life calls for help without notice in advance and for that, one should be ready at the proper place, at the proper time…

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Irena Shabani
Is an Albanian freelance journalist and human rights activist specialising in investigative journalism. She co-founded Panorama, the leading newspaper in Albania, where she served as managing editor from 2002 to 2003. Prior to Panorama she was a journalist at Shekulli and Gazeta Shqiptare and has been part of the Albanian Human Rights Group from its beginning. She has collaborated on programmes for the International Research and Exchanges Board, investigating topics involving crime and political corruption and continues to collaborates with foreign organisations and local media focused on social problems and minority rights.

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