Swiss air rescuers hit the big screen

Swiss Air Rescue workers are joined by the Imax film crew in front of an Agusta helicopter at the Samedan air base

A mother drives with her young son along an abandoned road in the Alps when a powerful avalanche suddenly strikes. They scream in panic.

This content was published on March 31, 2002 minutes

The mother manages to crawl from the car, which has been buried by snow, and with her mobile phone, she calls for help. Her seven-year-old son, Raphael, meanwhile, is trapped in the car, unconscious.

This is the opening scene of a 40-minute documentary on Switzerland's Air Rescue service, shot by a largely Canadian team of filmmakers. The film showcases the use of helicopters in emergency situations - in this case, a daring helicopter rescue in the southeastern St Moritz region.

"We want to look at the helicopter as the ultimate human tool for dealing with the forces that batter us around in the world," director Dave Douglas told swissinfo on location near the town of Samedan.

He is also showcasing the work of the everyday heroes who pluck injured snowboarders or hikers from cliffs and crevasses, in the Imax film "Straight Up - adventures in Vertical Flight".

Dramatic opening sequence

No helicopter operation is more dramatic and spectacular than that performed by the Swiss Air Rescue service, in Douglas' opinion.

Thick snow offsets the sleek red lines of the Agusta helicopter, providing Douglas with the sense of drama and contrast he needs to capture the audience's attention.

He shows Swiss pilot Marco Mailley flying in a paramedic and doctor to tend to the mother and child. They are then carried away to safety.

The Swiss Alps provide a beautiful backdrop for the shoot, although changing weather played havoc with the Canadian film crew's shooting timetable. Filming had to be extended by several days.

"If you consider that an Imax film costs $100,000 a minute, then I would say that it's costing somewhere between $25,000-$35,000 a day to stand out here in the snow," chuckled producer, Diane Roberts.

Executive producer Jonathan Barker told swissinfo that the large-format Imax camera, which projects 70mm film onto a 180-degree screen, is especially well suited to capture the action and scenery.

Entering the story

"The great thing about the Imax format is that it's very imersive and the audience can feel that they're participating in the action. The frame disappears and you can enter the image," said Barker.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Swiss Air Rescue service, and pilot Mailley said the film was a good way to promote the work of the non-profit organisation.

"The Swiss already know a lot about us - we operate throughout the country. We have 1.5 million members, but if you consider there're 7.5 million inhabitants in Switzerland, then hopefully this film will improve the knowledge of our work."

Mailley is reluctant to consider his work dangerous. His 23 years of experience and approximately 2,500 missions, has increased his ability to respond to unexpected situations and reduce the margin of danger.

Job satisfaction comes, he says, from saving lives. "The best thing is helping people, not just taking them down a mountain safely, but when we can really save their life, then I feel great."

The Swiss Air Rescue service flew some 10,906 missions in 2000 and the number is set to rise. Winter sport accidents accounted for most of the distress calls while road accidents came second.

Endangered rhinos

The Imax film is also showcasing how helicopters are used in other operations around the globe.

"We shot a sea rescue sequence off the coast of North Carolina with the coast guard, which being a night-time rescue is quite exciting. We also filmed the relocation of endangered black rhinos in South Africa," Barker said.

The rhinos are tracked with helicopters and then darted. Scientists take samples from the animals, and often a male will be have to be separated from the herd to prevent him from killing other males that pose a threat.

"How they move the rhino is to push it onto a giant platform which is then moved by the helicopter," Barker continued.

Other operations involving helicopters already captured by the Imax crew include the United Nations World Food Programme distributing sacks of food to the needy in Sierre Leone.

The film is set to premier on September 18 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Its launch in Switzerland follows one week later at the National Transport Museum in Lucerne, home to Switzerland's only Imax theatre.

by Samantha Tonkin

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