I’m often asked whether our air-to-ground operations in the security industry make a real difference. Granted, the media seems to bombard us almost daily with accounts of another cash in transit vehicle bombed or courier van hijacked.

George Tonking

BAD NEWS SELLS. But without good-news accounts, we may as well just hide-out at home, pack our bags for some imagined utopia abroad, or go stark raving mad in the meantime.

I refuse to do that: I love this beautiful country and its people way too much. Which is partly why I do what I do.

The statistics show that our airwing operations are making a difference – not only with our presence in the sky being a deterrent to potential criminals on the ground, but also that we are able to respond more quickly to in-progress situations, and have a favourable vantage point compared to ground responders.

We operate the Robinson R44 (of which we usually have half a dozen on hand) not only because of its reliability, but also for its direct operating cost. During holiday periods, we’ve found we need to have more helicopters in the air simultaneously to cover our 200-plus square mile Gauteng grid.

                 ‘I received a call from his sobbing wife’

Shortly before the Easter weekend we had one of those incidents that makes my job so worthwhile. I had run out of available R44s, which led me to the 44’s younger sister, the R66 turbine. The R66 is pretty similar to the R44, although 75kg (a whole person) lighter – and turbine powered. This gives the ship an great power to weight ratio – a winning recipe for the hot and high operating conditions found on the Reef.

George, Joel and Faheem on a mission.

My pilot-friend Joel from Mercy Air (whom I wrote about in our November 2020 edition) happened to be in town for the holidays. Naturally I invited him along to co-pilot the R66 and, as most pilots would, he jumped at the opportunity. The day’s mission started early with a normal patrol around the East Rand. Not long into the flight, however, I received a distress call from a colleague. He explained that one of our fixed-wing pilot’s brothers had been hijacked in the Bapsfontein area earlier that morning. The alarm had only been raised when the victim’s family had been alerted by his bank about irregular ATM withdrawals from his account in a high-risk area in the East Rand. Being close to the area, I decided to continue our patrol in that direction while trying to gather more information.

I was then convinced I needed to help when I received a call from his sobbing wife.

“Ma’am, he’ll be fine, we’ve done this many times before. Hang tight,” I assured her and myself.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous columns, it takes a team and good networking to bring a multi-discipline operation online, especially at short notice. First, I posted the details on one of our WhatsApp operational groups. Next, I made a call to Faheem Abramjee, a tracking specialist operator, with whom I had a good working relationship. He confirmed he had heard about the missing bakkie.

“George, come and fetch me!” was Faheem’s response to the urgency in my voice.

I turned my ship towards Kempton Park, and pulled firmly on the collective, at which she leapt in response to the Rolls-Royce RR300’s surge of power. A local landing zone was arranged. In a true Mission Impossible-style move we plucked up Faheem at the LZ, an easy task for the R66.

“Let’s go and check the local ‘cool-off’ spots.”

Faheem pointed to the horizon as we exited OR Tambo’s always-busy CTR.

Our plan was to scout the area where the last contact had been reported and possibly spook the captors or spot the vehicle. Faheem had in the meantime pulled up an exact picture of the bakkie on his phone. The distinctive stripes on its canopy would hopefully help us to identify it visually from the air. By now, I had received several calls about the case, including from a pastor friend, ‘Foxy’, who also knew the victim well. It’s amazing what a small world we live in when it comes to situations like this.

“Help us find him Georgie!” pleaded Foxy.

‘spook the captor’s – or spot the vehicle’

I continued towards the last contact – a busy urban area with a mall – and started setting up a grid pattern for a visual search. As we rounded the mall on our first pass, both Faheem and I exclaimed in unison, “There!”

We had spotted a vehicle which matched the description parked in a side street. Joel then managed to get a zoomed pic of the licence plate from the left seat. Bingo! As we continued circling, after notifying the police of the vehicle’s position, a call came through, this time from the victim’s family, with the words that made our day, “They’ve let him go!”

The recovered NP200.

A short time later, the victim walked into a police station in the vicinity.

I was flying (metaphorically speaking) for days. For, although we never actually saw the perpetrators, we are convinced that our presence above them played a large role in their victim’s release. And much of the success is down to the perfect machine we had for the day; the silky-smooth Robinson R66.

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