First responder to a maritime emergency

Ticking all the performance boxes, the Dornier 228 assisted fellow operators, the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies (Germany) and the Netherlands Coastguard, during a container ship emergency on the North Sea....

As operators of the Dornier 228, we are well-acquainted with the characteristics that make our aircraft a reliable and productive platform, both in its multirole and advanced commuter variations. What is apparent to our operator community, though, has seldom been the focus of international public attention, until 2 January 2019, when the Dornier 228 featured in one of the top news stories running across the globe.

Shipping containers topple

Stormy seas caused an ultra-container ship to lose part of its cargo, 270 containers in all, in the vicinity of the Netherlands-German border on open waters. It has since been classified as one of the worst container ship spills off the coast of the Netherlands, where upwards of 1,220 tons of debris was collected during the salvage missions that remained in progress for just over 2 weeks. The contents of the containers, everything from auto parts, to flat screen televisions, to shoes, toys and granulated plastic, all their plastic packaging, and even the containers themselves, posed immediate physical dangers to people, aquatic creatures, nautical vessels large and small, and fishery netting. And, shortly after the open waters emergency was announced, officials revealed that some of the containers held the hazardous chemical, organic peroxide. The chemical was packed in what was reported as 25-kg plastic bags that threatened to burst and contaminate local waters and protected coastal habitats, endangering the environment, including the people and the wildlife that form its ecosystem. The race for containment was on.

Quick to the scene, slow to cruise

As the German Central Command for Maritime Emergencies (CCME/Havariekommando) assumed the lead position in the control and clean-up, the Dornier228 became part of the solution. Both the CCME and the participating Netherlands Coastguard (Kustwacht Nederland) relied on their organizations’ dedicated Dornier 228 multirole aircraft. Taking to the sky, the deployed Dornier 228s flew missions that allowed all responders to assess the true magnitude of the situation by doing what the multirole aircraft does best – namely, low altitude cruising and loitering at low speeds, for hours on end, until dusk called halt to the containment and salvage efforts for the day.

The resulting photography from the first day of the emergency enabled the news media around the world to broadcast the close-ups of the MSC Zoe and the disarray of its container damage. Subsequent imagery showed the damaged containers floating in the waters, spilling their contents on the surface.

Search and salvage

The CCME’s Dornier 228 “Pollution Control” flew SAR patterns daily during the search and salvage phase of the clean-up. The installed multi-mission management system enabled precision in the low, tight patterns needed to identify items like tires and crates. Once a location was identified, recovery boats were deployed. The Dornier 228 crew’s optical/visual search also relied on their forward looking infra-Red (FLIR) system for detecting and targeting as the scored the ocean surface, and to a certain degree the sea floor nearer the coastline. Despite the special mission technology support, the missions were complicated by the storms still raging in the area.  Yet the teams, their aircraft and their sea vessels persevered in an effort to round up the spilled containers and their contents before they could sink and/or sprawl the debris over the entire seaboard, coastal wetlands and barrier islands.

Dornier 228 endurance

Resulting from the continuing storms, the Dornier 228 crew faced visibility issues in the darkened skies, as well as strong crosswinds. High seas made the detecting and targeting of the locations of floating debris tricky. Logs and media releases document the days when the CCME needed to close down operations. Nevertheless, the Dornier 228 team, supported by their flight management systems, flew safely for as long as possible. By 7 January, 220 containers had been identified on the sea floor, with another 40 containers still visible on the surface of the water.  By 9 January, one week after the incident, the first containers and debris had made landfall, where collection teams and volunteers were waiting.  The CCME Dornier 228 continued its SAR missions well into the second week.