Pilot George tackles South Georgia rats

gpHelicopter pilot George Phillips braved blizzards in the south Atlantic to bomb rats with hundreds of tonnes of poison.

George, a former air ambulance pilot, has just returned from a mission to the island of South Georgia to save millions of endangered sea birds.

He was part of a team of four pilots who were tasked to attack an infestation of brown rats which have run amok on the island since they were accidentally introduced by whale hunters 200 years ago.

In February, he joined the latest mission by the South Georgia heritage restoration project to reclaim the habitat for millions of seabirds and penguins threatened by the rodents, which eat the eggs and small birds.

His team completed 1,000 flights supplying baiting sites and dropping bait across 70 per cent of the island, from the support ship RRS Ernest Shackleton.

George, 61, who lives in Kibworth Harcourt with his wife Jane, said: “I had recently retired as an air ambulance pilot, so I jumped at the chance to take part in the operation when I was contacted by project director Tony Martin.

“I flew in conditions which I would not have considered safe in my past careers.”

That is some admission, as George has been an Army and RAF helicopter pilot and flew police helicopters before becoming an air ambulance pilot.

The latest operation followed a successful trial in 2011.

He said: “The biggest challenge for me was realising if we worked to the usual rules and regulations on helicopter flying, we would have never got the job done.

“The terrain was extremely mountainous with up and down draughts. We were carrying hoppers of bait which weighed 500 kilos. That is difficult to handle in high winds.”

He said on one occasion while transporting materials from the ship to forward bases, they ran out of fuel and had to camp out over night.

“I must say the conditions were terrible. The weather was so extreme and variable the three Kiwi pilots I worked with were, in my opinion, often laying their lives on the line in order to get the job done.”

During the missions the crews had to cope with blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and frozen equipment.

The team began flying 800 loads of fuel, bait, equipment and food from the helideck of RRS Ernest Shackleton to 14 separate forward operating bases.

Often when laying bait, they flew at 1,500 feet without a door so they could clearly see the bait drop below. The pilots endured temperatures of -14C.

With time running out, they managed to hit the target of baiting 580 square kilometres (360 square miles) of the island.

The bait is designed not to appeal to the birds on the island.

A spokesman for BirdLife International said: “South Georgia and its surrounding islands are the home of seven globally-threatened seabird species.

“With the rats gone, the vast, lost seabird colonies of the main islands could begin to recover, a giant step forward in the work to save these species from extinction.”

Professor Martin said: “To clear this magnificent island of rodents has been an ambition of mine for over a decade.

“I am thrilled we are well on the way to securing this important seabird habitat for future generations.”

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