China's first maritime search and rescue air service was launched yesterday in Shanghai, after a four-month trial.
The founding of Shanghai Maritime Search and Rescue Flying Service "is a great step forward for the country in building its emergency rescue capacity and safeguarding people's lives at sea," said maritime rescue expert Sun Fumin.
China's maritime rescues used to solely depend on boats. The advent of the new air service will now allow the bureau to send its eight rescue boats, previously based in port, to patrol the coast.
The two S-76C+ helicopters, purchased from Sikorsky of the United States at a total cost of about US$18 million, specialize in maritime search and rescue and can carry 13 passengers, in addition to a two-person crew.
The helicopters' features include power-driven hoist, infrared visibility location system, high-powered searchlight and four-axis automatic hovering system. They can locate a person overboard by detecting a single degree's difference between water and body temperatures, even amid force 10 winds and 9-metre-high waves.
Since 2001, more than 70 people including aircrew, ground service personnel and management staff, have prepared for the new service by training intensively in the United States and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Three new bureaux - the North China Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea rescue bureaux - which will specialize in emergency assistance, have been established.
Sun heads the planning team for the East China Sea Rescue Bureau based in Shanghai.
The helicopters currently only cover an area of 80 nautical miles during daylight hours.
Sun said they could be in the air within 45 minutes of receiving an emergency call - down from one hour at the start of the trial.
Sun revealed the bureau is planning to buy a larger rescue helicopter which can fly further afield and carry more people.
Insiders said China's programme to boost its sea search-and-rescue squads began after the 1999 Dashun ferry disaster, which killed 282 people, near Yantai in East China's Shandong Province.
Tian Jingyue, an official with the Ministry of Communications, said heliports will also be established in Yantai of Shandong to serve Bohai Bay, in Xiamen of Fujian Province and Hainan Island to serve the South China Sea.
The base at Yantai is expected to start up in the very near future, he said.
At present, Hong Kong's flying squad responds to emergencies that occur along the coast of Guangdong Province.