There were high moods inside the new aircraft hanger at Svalbard Airport during its official opening with speeches, chorus songs and the presentation of gifts. The hanger project had a budget of 118 million kroner, and Avinor CEO Dag Falk-Petersen said he is pleased it was completed on deadline and under budget.
Most relieved was Gov. Odd Olsen Ingerø, who now has two equally capable Super Puma helicopters for rescue operations and other missions. He admitted he hasn't always had a good feeling during operations in rough weather.
"In many cases we have flown out in fairly rough weather without backup," he said. It was uncomfortable, he said during the official opening Tuesday, before handing over the keys to the hanger to Lufttransport.
"I feel that we have a good readiness now to face the events that might come about," he told Svalbardposten.
Baptism of fire
The new emergency helicopter got a baptism of fire during Easter and in several instances both machines had to go out on a mission together. In one case, the weather was so bad there was consideration of sending a rescue team on skis to accompany tourists stuck on a mountain due to bad weather. When a window in the weather allowed it, the helicopters were able to bring all of the travelers out of the situation at the same time.
"So it is a happy day," Ingerø said, adding he believes preparedness in Svalbard is now more efficient. While previously it required eight hours to obtain a second rescue helicopter on weekends, there is now a continuous backup.
The hanger is also designed for two considerably larger helicopters if they should be necessary in the future. The model would be the AW 101 helicopter, which the Norwegian Armed Forces purchases for rescues. But that is not what Justice Minister Anders Anundsen has in mind for now.
During the opening and subsequent tour, he instead emphasized Norway has taken a new and important step toward an even safer Svalbard.
"I will not make it a habit to boast about my predecessors, but this is the harvest of previous work," Anundsen said.
During the subsequent tour and before a test flight to Ny-Ålesund he received an orientation from, among others, pilot Stig Onarheim.
"It is an improvement over the previous rescue preparedness in the area," Anundsen said in an interview with Svalbardposten. "This applies to the number that can be saved simultaneously and as insurance if something happens with the first helicopter heading out. And we have a far better range than before."
The hanger is designed for the new AW 101 machines. Is it conceivable that those new helicopters will come?
"It is premature to say anything about that now," Anundsen said. "The most important thing now is to say that we have good a very good arrangement with very good survival capacity. This is one of several emergency measures taken in Svalbard."
Also, Longyearbyen Mayor Christin Kristoffersen points out the new readiness is important for both residents and tourists, with the events in and around Easter fresh in memory.