Park chiefs hamper Navy plans for emergency helipads

PHUKET CITY: The Royal Thai Navy’s Third Fleet wants to build a network of helicopter landing pads on outlying islands so that tourists needing emergency medical treatment can be brought back to Phuket faster.

Rear-Admiral Supot Pruksa of the Third Naval Area Command announced the initiative yesterday following his opening address at a two-day maritime safety meeting attended by 60 naval officers at the Phuket Merlin Hotel.

All attendees are based in the six Andaman Coast provinces that comprise the Third Area Command, centered at the naval base at Cape Panwa.

The meeting is being held to update officers on progress made and integrating procedures of the Third Fleet’s five-year Maritime Safety Plan, launched in 2006.

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Navy efforts to increase tourist safety in the Andaman region came after the 2004 tsunami, when staff were posted at new facilities in Patong, on Koh Lanta Noi in Krabi and at both the Similan and Surin archipelagos off the coasts of Phang Nga and Ranong.

Citing the example of a Russian tourist who was airlifted to Phuket after being bitten by a fish while diving off the Similans in May last year, R/Adm Supot said that setting up landing pads for helicopters was the next logical step in the safety plan.

One landing pad has been built at the Surin Islands, but additional landing pads are needed there and at other popular tourist destinations, including the Similans and Koh Lanta Noi, he said

However, the National Parks officials responsible for these islands have been reluctant to allow more than 300 square meters of park land to be covered with asphalt to accommodate the 20-meter-diameter landing pads, he added.

“They say it will hurt the environment and destroy the scenery, but I think it is worth it in order improve our emergency response capacity,” he said.

The cost of each landing pad, about 60,000 baht, would be covered by the Navy, he said.

The Navy already has permission to build a helipad at Similan Island 8, but would prefer to site the helipad on Island 4, which is visited by many more tourists.

“We are in disagreement with them over that, but in the end I hope we can build it there. We would build it in an area that would not block beautiful views,” he said.

If the emergency helipad project is successful, injured tourists could be airlifted to Phuket in just 20 minutes, he said.

Getting injured tourists back to Phuket from the Similans can take up to four hours when seas are heavy, he added.

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