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Twelve Minutes to Tranquillity

Story by Sarah Bowen, Photos by Simon Browne

Page: 1/2

It has been almost fifteen years since operations began from the Xewkija Heliport on Gozo, a picturesque Mediterranean island only 14 km long and 7 km wide; part of Malta. There we discovered that what was once a simple rural landing site, tucked away in the peaceful countryside while still peacefully tucked away in the countryside is now a modern facility that is indispensable to the island.

Helisureste's Bell 412
Imagine escaping to a tranquil, relaxing haven where the traditional pace of life is so laid back that it wipes out the worries and distractions of everyday living. Such a paradise exists on the beautiful island of Gozo where even today, despite Malta's tourist industry boasting over 1 million visitors per year, the idyllic landscape and peaceful atmosphere remain largely untouched. Gozo's historical architecture and stunning views should not be missed and there is no better way to appreciate the island's remarkable scenery than from the comfort of a Bell 412 helicopter!

It's 12.45pm. As the Mediterranean sun blazes down on Luqa International Airport in Malta, we join pilots Salvador Carrazoni Garcia and Rafael Perez and the rest of the passengers aboard Helisureste's Agusta-Bell 412EP helicopter bound for Gozo. Captain Garcia was an officer of the Spanish Air Force (Ejercito del Aire) for more than eighteen years, flying both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft before joining Helisureste. He has logged over 5,300 hours and in the military, flew a range of helicopter types including the Hughes 300C, Bell 205, Sikorsky S76C and Eurocopter EC 120B. His military flying included flight instructing, test flying, fire fighting, SAR and medevac flying and as a commercial pilot he flew BO 105s in EMS operations before he began flying the Bell 412EP on Helisureste's Malta-Gozo service.

The Crew - Garcia and Perez
While many of Helisureste's pilots are ex-military, Garcia's Spanish-trained co-pilot, Perez, is civilian-trained. Perez, who now has around 1,200 hours, holds a CPL(H), has passed his ATPL(H) theory exams and has held an instrument rating since 1998. Before flying the Bell 412, Perez was rated on the R22, Hughes 500, Bell 47, Dauphin SA 365 and Sokol PZL W3A and his enthusiasm and passion for flying are obvious. Before joining Helisureste he worked for several Spanish companies and his flying included fire fighting and 3 years of HEMS experience, during which he logged 750 hours in a Dauphin, based at Galicia, north Spain. The friendly and professional attitudes of both Garcia and Perez made it an absolute pleasure to fly as passengers aboard their aircraft.

Despite a wind gusting to 30 kts from the northwest as we hover-taxi across for our departure towards the island's east coast, the ride is so smooth ride that only the wind sock lets us know there is a crosswind. The pilots fly the aircraft with such elegance and sensitivity that even the most nervous flyer would feel at ease - an important consideration, bearing in mind that many of the tourists typically using the service will probably have never even been close to a helicopter before!

The Grand Harbour, Malta
As we depart to the north on our 12-minute flight, we catch a bird's-eye view of the historic Grand Harbour, where in August 1942 during World War 2, five ships - the only survivors of a 78-ship convoy reached Malta and effectively saved the island. We continue; turning onto a north-westerly heading and at 117 kts, cruising 1000 ft above sea level, fly over the tourist resorts of Sliema, St Julian's, Bugibba and Mellieha Bay. In no time at all we pass the mid-channel island of Comino, which is famous for its crystal clear Blue Lagoon - a spectacular sight from the air!

In the past, helicopters were only cleared to route along the south coast of Malta, which, although giving those on board a fantastic view of the Blue Grotto and Malta's highest point, Dingli Cliffs, (some 830 ft [253 m] above sea level), meant missing out on some of Malta's most impressive aerial views. Since Helisurete began operating earlier this year, the DCA (Department of Civil Aviation) has given its helicopters a special VFR clearance to route via the northern coastline, which presents passengers with an absolutely stunning panorama of some of the most beautiful and famous settings on the Maltese islands.

Xewkija Heliport, Gozo
Before we know it we are touching down at Gozo's helicopter terminal in Xewkija, which was opened in 1996. Despite its state-of-the-art facilities, the heliport is literally in the middle of the wilderness! Step outside the building and there are fields, trees and even wandering donkeys in Gozo's peaceful and undisturbed surroundings! It was in this surreal juxtaposition of old and new that we met the friendly and accommodating staff of Helisureste who filled us in on the company's developments.

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