A crash course in survival
Injured and without food, Chatchawal Thanthong was forced to scale cliffs and traverse freezing rapids for 11 days after his helicopter went down in remote northern Myanmar
After 11 days lost in the most remote and inhospitable mountain terrain in Southeast Asia, Capt Chatchawal Thanthong thought he was hallucinating. The 59-year-old Thai helicopter pilot had a broken rib and had survived on nothing but river water after crash-landing his chopper during a failed attempt to fly supplies to a search and rescue team in northernmost Myanmar.
End of the ordeal: Injured Thai pilot Capt Chatchawal Thanthong is offloaded from a rescue helicopter at Putao airport in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state. Inset, Capt Chatchawal.
“I had been sitting on a rock by a ravine in the same position for one night,” he said in his first full-length interview on his survival.
“Then, I saw a man walking towards me and he left. I thought he was an imaginary vision. The man went back to get 10 people to help me. Minutes later, I heard loud cheers from afar, and 10 villagers came to bring me back.”
Capt Chatchawal’s remarkable story involves a mysterious attempt to scale Hkakabo Razi in war-torn Kachin state and a rescue operation funded by controversial Myanmar billionaire Tay Za, who is blacklisted by the United States.
Last September, two Myanmar mountaineers — Aung Myint Myat and Wai Yan Min Thu — were reported missing on Hkakabo Razi, an extension of the eastern Himalayas, and at 5,881m Southeast Asia’s highest peak.
Tay Za had funded the expedition of eight Myanmar climbers trying to make the first successful climb of Hkakabo Razi since 1996.
Aung Myint Myat and Wai Yan Min Thu were the only ones from their group to scale the summit on Aug 31, but after that they had lost contact with the group.
The other climbers returned safely down the mountain and asked Tay Za’s Htoo Foundation to help in the search for the missing pair.
Fateful flight: A Eurocopter EC-130, similar to the Thailand Advance Aviation-owned helicopter that took off from Putao airport on Sept 27 and later crashed.
The foundation contacted Advance Aviation — which advertises itself as Thailand’s largest VIP helicopter operator — to fly out of Putao township located 150km south of Hkakabo Razi.
On Sept 27, Capt Chatchawal was scheduled to fly an EC130 B4 helicopter from Putao to drop off supplies for a search and rescue team at Tahundan village, located about 30km southeast of the mountain.
On board were experienced mountain trekker U Shwe Yin Taw Gyi, employed by the Htoo Foundation, and Myanmar pilot Aung Myat Toe, who would help Capt Chatchawal navigate. Capt Chatchawal was experienced in operating in difficult terrain. He had previously piloted a helicopter for the Royal Forest Department, camped in forests and flown over mountainous areas in northern Thailand.
He had already piloted two successful missions from Sept 16-27 to drop supplies to the rescue team. On Sept 27 he took off at 1.45pm. The mission was supposed to be a short trip, but when he reached halfway, “the vision was bad. It was raining heavily”.
About 2.30pm, the helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing because it was too dangerous to fly further. Capt Chatchawal said he cannot go into more details about the incident as it is under investigation by insurers.
Recovering: Captain Chatchawal Thanthong at Samitivej Sukhumvit Hospital in Bangkok.
STRANDED ON HIGH
The trio all managed to escape the crashed helicopter. “We checked each other’s injuries,” Capt Chatchawal said. “My forehead was slightly grazed. Capt Aung Myat Toe’s eyebrow was swollen like a boxer who’d been punched in the head. I didn’t realise then that I had a broken rib.”
The three members removed supplies and clothing they had planned to deliver to the rescue team. “But our communication system, my iPad and compass were all broken,” the captain said. Looking around, they were surrounded by towering trees in a deep mountain forest, with no villages in sight. They realised then that the only way to survive was to walk out of the jungle and try and find help from villagers.
The trek involved climbing steep cliffs and traversing ravines. “One fall could have led to my death,” Capt Chatchawal told Spectrum.
Because of his injuries, Aung Myat Toe was too weak to walk, so Shwe Yin Taw Gyi and Capt Chatchawal left him behind at the crash site.
Capt Chatchawal changed from his pilot’s uniform to casual clothes in the supplies they had retrieved. Carrying a backpack, Shwe Yin Taw Gyi led the way. “He saved my life,” the captain said, recalling the courage and skill of the trekker.
Shortly after the helicopter lost contact, both Advance Aviation and the Htoo Foundation started formulating a search operation for the three crew members. Shwe Yin Taw Gyi is Tay Za’s personal assistant for mountaineering.
Tay Za was himself stranded on another mountain in northern Kachin state in February 2011 for three days, when conditions forced his helicopter to land. The Kachin News reported that the government, led by Tay Za’s close ally and Myanmar president Than Shwe, deployed significant resources — including local military — in the rescue effort.
Tay Za already has extensive business interests in Putao district, which is rich in natural resources including timber and minerals, the Kachin News reported.
The Irrawaddy magazine reported Tay Za has been granted a 40,000 hectare logging concession in Putao district by government authorities, allowing him to harvest a long stretch of pristine teak forest. He has also applied for permits to mine for gold and other minerals in the area.
The efforts to rescue Capt Chatchawal were also spurred by Thai media.
The captain had previously piloted a helicopter for Channel 3 TV news. On Sept 29, popular media personality Sorayuth Suthassanachinda reported the news of the missing captain.
At the time, Chai Nasylvanta, the head of Advance Aviation, said he had high hopes the helicopter had not crashed and all three crew members had survived. He said the Emergency Alert Transmission, which sends a signal when a helicopter crashes, had not sent any signal to the company’s receiver.
Mr Chai said the company had informed Mr Chatchawal’s family and taken them to Myanmar to await news.
INTO THE WOODS
But deep in the forest, Capt Chatchawal was unaware of the frenzied search operations. All he was focused on was how to survive, cautiously following the steps of the Myanmar trekker to whom he had entrusted his life.
“Taw Gyi walked in front of me to survey the direction,” he said. “After he thought the path was safe, he would place his backpack to mark the location and walk back to get me. He did this over and over,” Capt Chatchawal said.
“Sometimes, he scolded me for not being careful enough. But I understand he wanted me to be safe.
"I am very grateful,” the Thai pilot said.
“We had to climb up cliffs or walk through rapid-flowing rivers every day. It was very dangerous. If I’d fallen, I’d have died.”
The two trekked during the day until about 3pm, when it started to get dark in the forest. They would find a place to sleep, making sure it was not near a waterway to avoid rising waters at night. They constructed beds and covering from leaves and branches.
“I was bitten by leeches. But surprisingly, we did not run into any wild animals,” Capt Chatchawal said.
During their trek they survived only on river water.
“It was not healthy to drink unboiled natural water, but we had no choice,” the captain said.
“Theoretically, we should have eaten wild fruit. But I noticed that even birds would not eat them. I was afraid that they would make me sick. So, I passed.”
Every night, Capt Chatchawal and Shwe Yin Taw Gyi would pray before resting.
“The first three nights, we were embarrassed to let the other know that we prayed. So, we prayed alone separately. But after we found that both of us prayed every night, we began praying together from the fourth night before sleeping,” Capt Chatchawal said.
By the eighth day, the captain was too exhausted to accompany Shwe Yin Taw Gyi.
“The Myanmar guide was very good at trekking. He walked twice as fast as I did. I asked him to leave and go ahead to see if there’s anyone to help.”
Capt Chatchawal said he told the trekker that if he found help, he should walk in the opposite direction of the river flow to find him. “That was our meeting point,” he said.
During that time, Tay Za was in Naung Mun Village, where the helicopter had last contact, to oversee the search operation. Channel 3’s Sky Report Team went to the site. Advance Aviation offered a reward for anyone who could help. Still, there was no sign of the captain. Capt Chatchawal’s family went back to Thailand after waiting more than a week in Myanmar.
On Oct 7, the 10th day after the helicopter went missing, the Htoo Foundation received a message from Shwe Yin Taw Gyi, who had managed to find the remote village of Lan Sa.
The trekker told Tay Za that the other two crew members were still in the forest and waiting to be rescued. The rescue team was deployed to the village immediately where a helipad was arranged. The rescue team stayed at Lan Sa village that night and took off early in the morning.
They walked up the river for three hours and found the captain on the morning of Oct 8.
After separating from Shwe Yin Taw Gyi, Capt Chatchawal limped on and spent his first night alone in the jungle.
On the second day, he reached a spot by the river where the trees blocked the sunlight. However, the area was open and he could easily be spotted by searchers on the ground. It was not windy and he heard birds chirping, he recalled.
“I was very exhausted. I could not move any further. I was sitting on a rock, like riding on a horse. My knees touched the ground. I had been sitting still in that position since the afternoon. I began to think, once I am gone, I might end up being a carcass for the ants here.”
Hours later, Capt Chatchawal couldn’t believe his luck when the man he thought was an hallucination emerged from the forest with a group of rescuers. Shwe Yin Taw Gyi arrived a short time later. “I knew then I would survive,” Capt Chatchawal said.
The rescue team treated the captain’s wounds in the forest. He was malnourished and his skin had become infected. The villagers covered his shivering body with a blanket and started a camp fire to keep him warm.
Capt Chatchawal asked for food but the rescue team told him he could not eat straight away after starving for 11 days. They made a hot drink for him before cooking a small portion of boiled rice. He was put on a stretcher and carried by the villagers to a nearby location where a helicopter picked him up and took him for medical treatment.
Capt Chatchawal was flown from Putao to Yangon via Mandalay that night. His family had returned to Myanmar and were waiting for him there. “I was surprised,” he said.
He received primary treatment at the hospital before returning to Thailand. He spent a month recovering at Samitivej Sukhumvit Hospital in Bangkok. “I am OK now,” he told Spectrum. “I can jog but cannot sprint 100 metres yet.”
The captain has flown more than 11,000 helicopter hours, but he will have to pass fresh examinations to be certified to fly again. “A pilot who experienced an incident like that has to go through more gruelling examinations such as psychiatric assessments to make sure that he is ready to fly,” he said.
Unfortunately the Myanmar pilot, Aung Myat Toe, did not make it. He was found dead two days after Capt Chatchawal was rescued. The Htoo Foundation issued a statement saying he was cremated near the crash site by the rescue team.
Four months after the disappearance of the two climbers, the Htoo foundation says it is continuing the search, but acknowledges it is unlikely they will be found alive.
Asked what kept him going during his ordeal, the captain replied “faith”.
“It is the power of people who prayed for me,” Capt Chatchawal said. n