Switzerland's Air Rescue service, Rega, is celebrating half a century of saving lives in the Swiss Alps and beyond.
The mountain rescue organisation was founded on April 27, 1952 but it was only in December of the same year that Rega launched its first rescue flight when a hot air balloon became lost and pilot Sepp Bauer set off to rescue the driver.
At the beginning Rega used parachutists for rescues, however, now the rescue workers take off in helicopters around 9,500 times per year in order to save mountaineers in trouble.
According to Rega, it only takes the familiar red helicopter a maximum of 15 minutes to get anywhere in the country, which is served by 13 heliports and 270 employees.
"We just kept on getting bigger and we are now flying around 10,000 rescue operations per year," said Hans-Peter Kurz, the chairman of the company. "We will soon have done our 200,000th rescue missions," he continued.
Apart from mountain rescue, Rega also deals with repatriating Swiss nationals from abroad. In 1973 the company acquired the Lear-Jet 24D, the first ever ambulance jet in the world.
Now the company owns 14 rescue helicopters, three ambulance jets and one Challenger plane, and plans to acquire another two Challengers in October this year.
Last year Rega reported a seven per cent decline in repatriation flights, which are now down to 1,252 per year. Between September and December they even plummeted by 16 per cent. "This sharp decline is probably due to the September 11 terrorist attacks," Kurz said.
Rega employees are widely seen as heroes and heroines and around 1.6 million Swiss currently sponsor the organisation with a total of around SFr60 million per year.
However, Kurz emphasised that it was not Rega's goal to create such heroes and the company was not particularly keen to shape such an image. "It's all about helping people, who are in trouble and not about creating a myth," Kurz said.
According to Kurz everybody can use Rega's services and the organisation is even flying rescue missions in foreign countries. "We do this mainly if our ambulance jet is not being utilized properly," he said.
For rescue services outside Switzerland, however, Rega needs to make sure that either the patient or the insurance company covers the bill. If nobody is willing to pay, so Kurz, Rega is unlikely to go.
For its anniversary, the rescue service has planned several activities such as open days at some of their helicopters bases. And for those who like collecting stamps want to send an airmail letter, the post office has issued special stamps depicting a red helicopter and an ambulance jet.
by Kathrin Boss Brawand