When a tsunami devastated the small town of Robinson Crusoe, in the Juan Fernández archipelago in Chile, the reaction capacity of the company Corpflite was essential to save the lives of those who had been left in the rubble.
By Santiago Rivas
In the early hours of February 27, 2010, an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale shook central Chile. Minutes later, a tsunami struck the coasts of the country and Robinson Crusoe Island, in the Juan Fernandez archipelago. In the small island, with about 600 inhabitants, the delay in sending the tsunami alert led to the population not evacuating in time to the highest areas, resulting in ten deaths and six missing, in addition to the destruction of much of the small town.
The island is more than 600 kilometers from the coast of Chile, so it was not possible to quickly help its inhabitants by means of a ship. The only way to send aid was by air, but the small runway of a thousand meters in length and the distance to the continent mean that only a few aircraft can operate safely. To this is added that where the aerodrome is located, in the only flat part of the island, it is common to have strong winds, while both ends of the runway have cliffs very close, complicating the operation even more.
At that time, the company Corpflite flew to the island with its Dornier 228, one of the few aircraft that could load enough fuel to go and return to the island. This aspect is fundamental, since many times when arriving to Robinson Crusoe it is impossible to land, due to the weather conditions, and the plane must return to the continent. In addition, its STOL capability allows it to operate safely, while it is very stable to do so despite the wind. Its cruise speed of 223 knots, higher than that of all other aircraft that can operate on the island, also allowed a shorter flight.
Corpflite is a company created in 2007 in Chile, which initially started operating a Dornier 228-200 rented to LASSA company, which they ended up buying shortly thereafter. With the plane they operated from the city of Santiago to the runway of Los Pelambres mine, at almost 200 kilometers to the north and located at 4000 feet in the middle of the Andes Cordillera and surrounded by mountains of more than 12,000 feet.
As soon as the disaster occurred in the Juan Fernández archipelago, an inhabitant of the island contacted one of the Corpflite pilots, Ricardo Schäfer (who unfortunately died in an accident in September 2013), asking for urgent help. According to Germán Ribba, president of the company, “we had to attend after the earthquake to Juan Fernandez and the southern zone of Chile, not only with the Dornier, but with other planes as well”.
Ribba says that “the planning was made by Schäfer. He is no longer with us, it is a little difficult to reconstitute it, he already had the whole complete setting to fly to the island, he knew all the dynamics that he had already generated, he had been flying to the island for years, before we bought the airplane”.
When the contact was established, it was decided to send the teams of rescuers with dogs with the Dornier to search for possible survivors in the rubble. It was a mission that had to be carried out as soon as possible, since every minute counted to be able to find people with life and on the island there were not enough means. Not only was needed a plane that could reach the island safely but should be one that could do it quickly. Immediately they prepared the plane and departed on the same day for Robinson Crusoe, being the first to arrive with assistance after the earthquake. “indicates the capacity for action, reaction, disposition, alertness and versatility that both the plane and the company have, that is the interesting thing, how until today the whole human part, with the commitment to get involved in these situations as is the case of the earthquake, immediate reactions and for that the plane responds to one hundred percent.”
The speed of the Dornier 228plane also allowed them to arrive quickly, covering the 400 miles in almost two hours of flight , carrying eight rescuers plus dogs. “In Juan Fernández the runway is an aircraft carrier, it has cliffs on both sides, it is thousand meters long, very windy, sometimes there is more crosswinds, but it is mostly oriented towards the south, plus the effect of the cliffs on both sides complicates the operation. The plane is absolutely appropriate for that type of operation. You enter high, you dive towards the runway without any problem, it is the ideal airplane” explains Germán Ribba.
The aspect of the fuel is another factor of great importance, since they must go with fuel to go and return because in the island there is no fuel. “In fact, the CASA 212 accident was caused by the winds and because they were already without fuel to return. The point of no return of them was long before the island, while we can get to the island and back” explains Ribba, referring to the accident that on September 2, 2011 claimed the lives of the 3 crew and 18 passengers of a CASA 212-300 of the Chilean Air Force when it was trying to land on the island.
“Beyond the Dornier, the operation of Juan Fernández requires a lot of planning, knowledge of the area, meteorology and all aspects that would have to comply with aeronautical regulations and flight safety” explains Ribba, adding that “it is a demanding operation, the island has all four seasons in a day. So, the operation of cargo and passengers is restricted by the need to carry fuel”.
During relief operations after the earthquake, Corpflite also provided assistance to other towns, such as Constitución, to areas that were devastated in Arauco, “in areas where roads were cut off we arrived with planes, with doctors, we had to distribute satellite telephones donated by Hillary Clinton, the operation was very strong. It was an air bridge, we linked the places with most needs”, recalls Ribba.
This is not the only opportunity in which Corpflite provided support to the community, also, when on March 25, 2015, a flood occurred in the city of Copiapó, in northern Chile, which devastated a large part of the city and caused at least 25 deaths. A mining company with which Corpflite worked contacted them to request the evacuation of the injured, mainly with fractures. Thus, one of the Dornier 228 that currently operates the company was dispatched and evacuated eight wounded, some on stretchers and others seated, taking them to Santiago, where they could be treated.