British air rescue crew honoured at The Millies

Air rescue crew members of the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy were recognised for their life-saving work at the fifth annual Sun Military Awards (The Millies) recently. Organised by The Sun newspaper in collaboration with the Ministry of Defence, the awards ceremony was held at the Imperial War Museum, London, on 6 December and was attended by senior military and government officials along with members of the royal family.

Air rescue crew members of the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy were recognised for their life-saving work at the fifth annual Sun Military Awards (The Millies) recently. Organised by The Sun newspaper in collaboration with the Ministry of Defence, the awards ceremony was held at the Imperial War Museum, London, on 6 December and was attended by senior military and government officials along with members of the royal family. The event will be broadcast on national television on 14 December.

Among those presented with an award was Cpl Justin Morgan of 771 Naval Air Squadron, based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Cornwall, who won the Outstanding Sailor/Marine of the Year category in recognition of a challenging rescue made on 15 August 2012. Speaking after the ceremony, he said: “I am so very pleased to receive this award as recognition of the work that we at 771 Naval Air Squadron provide day in, day out and to my fellow aircrew, engineers and all the support staff. It was truly a team effort and we couldn’t have done without them. It has been fantastic to actually meet the yachtsman we rescued, catch up on what happened and provide some closure to the event.”

Among the nominees for the Life Saver Award were the RAF Medical Emergency Response Teams (MERTs), which are made up of Chinook helicopter aircrew, RAF medics and RAF Regiment force protection personnel.

Flight Lieutenant Chris Wilkes, a Chinook pilot from 18 (B) Squadron, RAF Odiham, commented: “I feel a great deal of pride to be part of a team that has been nominated for a Millies award. Flying the MERT into a hostile area to recover the seriously injured is without doubt the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I have never experienced a more professional and selfless team working environment, and I am moved to see that its role has been recognised as worthy of a nomination.”

Meanwhile, Squadron Leader Lorrie Lawton, 4626 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, was nominated in the Best Reservist category. Sqn Ldr Lawton was the first RAF Reservist to take a role in the MERT. Her day job role as a consultant nurse for paediatric emergency care prompted her to review the care of injured children in Afghanistan in a medical system designed to care for adults. She explained: “I was surprised to hear I was nominated, as I don’t think I was doing anything out of the ordinary – as far as I was concerned, I was just doing my job. It is a great honour to represent the RAF Reserves at the Millies, I am proud to stand for them and the hard work they all do alongside their regular RAF colleagues.”

Challenging rescue

The Royal Navy released the following description of the rescue mission that took place on 15 August 2012.

At 19:45 hrs, Rescue 193, the 771 Naval Air Squadron search and rescue Sea King helicopter, was scrambled following the detected activation of a search and rescue beacon from the six-metre (20-ft) single-handed French yacht Raoul Pasterque, 50 nm northwest of St Ives, Cornwall. Weather conditions were extreme with 40-kt winds, sea state eight and a 40-ft (12-m) swell.

Following an initial planning estimate, additional fuel was taken prior to departure in order to maximise the duration of the search. At this stage, the only information available was the satellite-ascertained position of the beacon updated by the Falmouth Coast Guard, so with only an hour of daylight remaining, the aircraft transited at height, in turbulent cumulus cloud, in an effort to ‘home in’ on the distress frequency. Homing to the distress beacon was not possible, and the beacon signal could only be heard sporadically through the aircraft radio, but, unusually, there was no indication to the pilots as to what bearing the signal was coming from.

After re-checking equipment and unsuccessfully testing secondary methods of homing, the crew initially suspected that the sea state was limiting the range of the beacon signal at low level. Radar was also ineffective due to the sea state and wave size. Having now arrived at the datum position given by Falmouth Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), a square search was conducted whilst timely situation reports were passed to the Coast Guard and the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre. As further SARBE satellite ‘hits’ were received by the MRCC, their positions were plotted and visual searches were modified accordingly. Unable to locate the small yacht, the difficulty of the rescue was further compounded by frequent heavy showers and the onset of darkness.

Despite the unserviceable onboard homing equipment, Royal Navy observer Lt Commander M. Ford began making an attempt to remedy the deteriorating situation by triangulating a likely position of the vessel using the SARBE audio volume alone as an indication of the yacht’s likely bearing from the aircraft. This non-standard procedure involved plotting bearing lines taken from the compass heading whenever the audio signal of the beacon was at its loudest. With a bearing line plotted, the aircraft was offset laterally to generate a ‘cross-cut’, and further assessments were made of the probable bearing of the beacon. A succession of these events allowed the crew to produce a fix as to the likely datum position of the vessel.

The crew donned night vision goggles and continued the visual search in darkness. Mindful of the ongoing search and unknown medical condition of the solo yachtsman, as well as the appalling weather, darkness and unserviceable homing equipment, Ford updated the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre and suggested they prepare to launch other assets to assist the search. Then, whilst flying a search pattern in the vicinity of the datum, a flare was sighted by the crew, and an approach was made to the vicinity of the yacht. Winchman Cpl Morgan, Royal Marines, dropped a flame float as a further visual reference and Lt Commander A. Knight, the second or right-seat pilot, positioned the aircraft so a crew recce could be conducted. Alongside Knight in the cockpit was first pilot and search and rescue aircraft commander Lt Commander A. Jones.

The yacht was found lying beam on to the sea, not making any headway, with both sails, wreckage and some flotsam in the water, and appeared to be without any steerage or means of control. As the aircraft hovered alongside, a particularly heavy squall passed through. Knight hovered using only the white landing light as a means of illuminating the yacht for a visual reference, whilst responding to instructions from Morgan as the visibility reduced to 100 m (330 ft) in the torrential rain. One survivor could be seen aft, wearing a survival suit, but communications of any form could not be established due to the poor visibility and lack of response from the yacht to any radio calls. It was assessed that a rescue could not safely be effected until the squall passed through and, although maintaining a hover in these conditions was extremely challenging, the crew did not want to orbit the yacht as, if visual contact were lost, it was believed that it would be very difficult to reacquire the vessel again.

As the squall blew through, Ford ascertained that there were no other vessels within an hours’ steaming of their position that might be used to shelter the yacht and assist with recovery. The crew decided that despite the conditions, a winch rescue was the best option. Ford took control of the aircraft from the rear door position using auxiliary hover trim and with great skill and tenacity manoeuvred the aircraft safely over the top of the yacht in order to pass a hi-line to the yachtsman. The plan was to then send Morgan down to the yacht and use the routine hi-line technique to recover the sailor.

Unexpectedly, however, once the yachtsman had the hi-line in hand, he tied it around his waist and abandoned his vessel, jumping straight into the pitching sea. The crew acted quickly and calmly to this dramatic event. With the aircraft still under auxiliary hover trim control overhead the pitching yacht, and with the casualty now attached to the aircraft via the hi-line, there was significant risk that under tension the line would break. Without hesitation Morgan readied himself in the door and Ford then lowered him into the sea, clear of the yacht and the wreckage that was floating around her.

As the sailor drifted clear of his yacht, Morgan pulled the casualty towards himself using sheer brute force, whilst Knight moved the aircraft towards the casualty’s position under Ford’s verbal direction and with only his instruments to guide him. Due to the huge swell, ferocious spray and constant buffeting, Morgan elected to inflate his lifejacket to keep himself on the surface whilst he dragged the sailor towards him. At this point he could not see the survivor because of the sea state, but knew because of the tension in the line that he was on the end of the hi-line.

Once Morgan had physically taken hold of the survivor, he placed him into the strop and Ford winched them both into the aircraft together. After 40 minutes hovering over the yacht, the rescue had been effected safely and the aircraft then proceeded to the Royal Cornwall Hospital, where the yachtsman received treatment for his injuries.

Images all courtesy of UK Minstry of Defence