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Above And Beyond: When Tragedy Strikes, These Pilots Spring To Action

Yari Bovalino
May 05, 2017
On Jan. 18, a series of earthquakes sent 120 tons of snow careening into the Hotel Rigopiano at the foot of Gran Sasso mountain in central Italy and spurred Giuseppe Briganti into action. Briganti and his crew from the Italy State Police’s 11th Flight Department in Pescara spent hours airlifting victims to hospitals and bringing back supplies in a rescue helicopter. For the pilots the emergency was large-scale but not  unanticipated.
The pilots fly rescue missions into the seismically unstable Apennine Alps, the rocky spine that splits the length of Italy’s boot. It’s a job that demands readiness at all times. To describe his work, Briganti borrows from Lawrence of Arabia: “For a man of action, nothing is written.”

To keep his helicopters ready, Briganti, who runs operations on the base, relies on a group of seven technicians from Avio Aero, a GE Aviation company, and its operations center in Brindisi, further down along the Adriatic coast. The Avio Aero service center supports the helicopter fleets of several Italian government and military branches: the police, fire brigade, forestry corps, coast guard and navy. On average, the technicians carry out over 40 periodic or emergency maintenance checkups per month across the police’s 11 helicopter bases.

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Top image: To describe his work, Briganti borrows from Lawrence of Arabia: “For a man of action, nothing is written.” Image credit: Yari Bovalino for GE Reports.

But the base in Pescara is among the most active. Avio Aero technician SanteTarì was on the ground in Pescara in January when the deadly avalanche struck. “I was overwhelmed by sorrow in those days, as well as by anger,” he says, a sentiment he says reverberated through the base as each wave of new information about the emergency came in. “It was hard for everyone in Pescara to hold back tears,” he says.

Tarì says that watching the police team deal with the consequences of an earthquake in the middle of a snowstorm gave his job new meaning. “You know that even if you are working inside a hangar, you can help save lives,” he says.

The flight department is called frequently to do just that. In August, the pilots spent days in the air when a magnitude-6 earthquake devastated the ancient towns of Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto. At the end of October, another set of tremors wrecked churches and buildings dating from the Renaissance to Roman times.

His team was ready to help then, too — because it had to be. Trying to predict an earthquake is largely an exercise in futility, Briganti says. “Weather forecasts are based on mathematical models, but seismic forecasts are scientifically impossible to carry out, however hard we try,” Briganti says.

The conditions are demanding for the technicians. “The efficiency of the helicopters is in your hands, and you must prepare them to operate in the worst climatic conditions,” Avio Aero’s Tarì says. “You must recheck everything, and you must work fast. But it comes almost instinctively in those times.”

But there are moments of deep satisfaction in the job, Briganti says. A few years ago, for example, the crew saved a woman who suffered a heart attack while climbing a mountain in the range. Using a winch and gurney, they lifted her into the helicopter and flew her to a hospital. She later invited them to dine with her and her friends at a mountainside lodge to say thank you. She also calls the base every holiday.