A number of UK military air rescue personnel have been recognised in the latest Operational Honours and Awards list.
South Sudan evacuation
Among them was Flt Lt Timothy Eddy, who was awarded the Air Force Cross after evacuating 182 people during the escalating conflict in South Sudan in December 2013. The Ministry of Defence explained that Eddy was the captain of an RAF C-17 on a mission to evacuate what was thought to be 45 British nationals from Juba, after fighting between government troops and rebel factions broke out in the African state. However, it soon became clear the number of civilians wanting to leave was rapidly increasing as the security situation deteriorated, far more than the C-17’s normal maximum capacity of around 100. Ten minutes from landing, Eddy was advised the runway was blocked by a crashed Boeing 737. Running low on fuel and using binoculars to judge the situation as he flew overhead; he decided that around 5,000 ft (1,500 m) of runway was still useable.
Aware of the dangers – but equally concerned for the civilians on the ground – Eddy calculated he could make a steep approach and land with the 737 ahead of him using maximum braking. Following a successful landing, the ground situation was clearly chaotic with far greater numbers of civilians that originally assessed wanting to leave. Already low on fuel due to the delayed approach, Eddy established he could take an unconventional approach in keeping all four engines running during refuelling. This ‘hot refuel’ allowed all 182 civilians to board and the aircraft to get airborne for Uganda just as the airfield closed for a security curfew. This is just one example of his courage, determination and exceptional devotion to duty where his captaincy, judgement and trust in his crew enabled him to execute outstanding mission command and safely evacuate civilians.
Flt Lt Eddy commented: “Individually, it’s a massive honour and a huge privilege to receive this honour, but more so for the team of seven crew that were with me on the day and also the Squadron. It represents the teamwork and the tenacity that everybody displayed.” He added: “No one person can operate a C-17, and on that day, it took us all working together to ensure the mission was a success.”
Also recognised was Sqn Ldr Charlie Thompson Edgar, a Royal Air Force (RAF) nurse. The RAF said that the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) was the lifeline of operations during Op Herrick in Afghanistan, and was drastically changed for the better by Thompson-Edgar during her time in charge. She showed tremendous skill and courage when she managed the first British triple amputee in 2007, said the RAF, and identified the need for stronger training to prepare those working on a MERT: “With the creation of a new post heading all MERT operations, Sqn Ldr Thompson-Edgar was selected and formed a bespoke course for all MERT personnel. As a subject matter expert, her work to create real-life training and intensive kit awareness brought a whole new level of professionalism and expertise to the MERT, especially with the introduction of Trauma Risk Management (TRIM).”
Talking about TRIM, Thompson-Edgar said: “It is a tool to enable our personnel to reflect on an incident that has happened and to help them share what has happened. It is vital in helping individuals get through the psychological aspects of what they have been through after horridly awful ordeals. TRIM also highlights the potential of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The RAF reported that Thompson-Edgar was pushed to her limits in 2010 when her leadership and intuitiveness had to stretch to cover the entire area of operations in Afghanistan. As her teams became more and more fatigued under the heavy workload, she and they worked tirelessly to ensure they delivered ‘100-per-cent excellent care and treatment’ to all their patients around the clock.
At the end of her tour, Thompson-Edgar was awarded the Tri-Service Emergency Nurse of the Year award for her exceptional contribution as officer commanding MERT, and has been further recognised with the award of Associate of the Royal Red Cross in this year’s honours.
Thompson-Edgar said the award highlighted the tremendous team ethos and effort that went in to a being part of a MERT, adding: “I’m delighted and very surprised. I’m very privileged having had such a fantastic role out in Afghanistan, and I look at the people that we evacuated off of the battlefield, and what we did was nothing in comparison to the bravery they showed. For those guys on the ground that need our help, and for me to be recognised in this way is truly humbling. For me the team effort is the one thing that made MERT as successful as it is now, it is now a globally acknowledged platform that is the pinnacle of pre hospital care. Our teams gelled so well, and worked so well together, and have set the bar for everyone else.”
Extraction under fire
Major Laura Nicholson, formerly a flight lieutenant in the RAF, has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for her part in a mission to extract casualties in Afghanistan. She twice flew a Chinook helicopter into a fierce firefight to reach the victims. The RAF Regiment Force Protection Team who protected the aircraft received a Mention in Dispatches.
The RAF explained that on 4 December 2013, Nicholson was the captain of the Chinook that was launched to rescue and provide urgent medical assistance to a critically-injured member of the US Marine Corps whose patrol had been ambushed by the Taliban. Landing in the middle of a ferocious firefight, the aircraft came under attack from enemy small arms and rocket propelled grenade fire, forcing the RAF Regiment Force Protection team and one Chinook to return fire. Holding the enemy at bay with their suppressive fire, the Force Protection Team helped see a casualty onboard while Nicholson briefed her crew ready for an immediate and swift exit.
After taking the injured Marine to the Camp Bastion hospital, Nicholson and the RAF Regiment team were immediately re-tasked to the same area, as the Taliban ambush had resulted in a number of civilians being critically-wounded, including a mother who had sustained a gun-shot wound to her head. As it approached the landing site, the Chinook was once again fired upon by enemy combatants; Nicholson managed to land the aircraft a second time as it took fire. With the Force Protection Team once again having helped the injured woman and her upset children aboard, Nicholson steered the aircraft away from the area, despite it being struck by multiple rounds, one of which wounded one of her crewman in the lower leg. Once airborne, the Force Protection team began to provide care to the various casualties before personally taking responsibility for providing care and support to the injured mother and her traumatised children. Despite the injuries to those onboard, including her crew, Nicholson carefully guided the damaged aircraft back once again to Camp Bastion.
Nicholson said: “I was really shocked and honoured to receive the award, but I also have to dedicate it to my crew – my co-pilot Flt Lt Max Card and crewmen Flt Sgt Dan Baxter and Sgt Chris Purkiss, they were fantastic. It was a great example of different military elements working together; my crew getting us in and out safely, the RAF Regiment gunners protecting the aircraft and the medics doing the lifesaving work onboard.”
She added that flying in the first time, the crew didn’t know what to expect. Going back the second time, there were ‘a little nervous’ because they’d come under fire. Nicholson continued: “There was never any question about going back, though. I wouldn’t say I was brave – there was a further casualty to pick up, we simply had to go. At the time, all you can think about is doing your duty, especially when there are injured people involved.” Nicholson said that the adrenaline was going when the call to action first came, but knowing there are casualties is always quite sobering: “There’s also a bit of trepidation when we’re cleared to enter an area, because we don’t know what we’ll face, but then it’s straight back to the job at hand, there’s no room for nervousness. We just concentrate on getting in, getting the casualty onboard and getting them to hospital as quickly as possible.”
Two members of an RAF search and rescue (SAR) team who found and rescued a fisherman lost overboard near the Falkland Islands have also been honoured. Flt Lt Ian Campbell, who has been awarded the Air Force Cross, and Sgt Dan Allanson, awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, were part of a four-man SAR team called to rescue a fisherman lost overboard from the vessel FV Venturer 60 miles (100 km) northeast of East Falkland on 28 July 2014. With the search taking place at night and in atrocious weather – including 45-ft (15-m) waves, torrential rain and 55-mph (90-kph) winds – the team’s chances of finding the man were remote at best, said the RAF. However, against all odds, the crew found the man by combining their radar, a reported sighting of a man in the water and an estimation of where the ocean drift would have carried him. During a second sweep of the area, he was located in the water using the aircraft’s searchlight.
With Campbell manually hovering the aircraft, owing to the rapidly changing height of the waves, Allanson immediately winched down to rescue the man from the freezing water. Giving hand signals to provide directions to Campbell, co-pilot Flt Lt Tom Greene and the winch operator, Sgt Mike Boissier-Wyles, Allanson grabbed the man at the first attempt. Clinging on to the man while being battered by the violent waves and swelling current, Allanson was winched back into the helicopter and provided life support as they made their way to hospital. Despite the team’s valiant attempts to save the man’s life, he was later pronounced dead at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital in Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands.
Campbell is based with 202 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, while Allanson is with 22 Squadron at Wattisham Airfield, but they were working together as part of a seven-week tour to the Falklands.
Campbell reflected: “I was really surprised and honoured to receive the award, but as captain I have to say that it’s testament to the skill, dedication and bravery of my crew that night. We move quickly to get to any incident, but especially so when you know someone’s in danger in water. The weather and sea conditions were truly awful, but you don’t give it a second thought; this isn’t just a job for us, it’s our way of life. We were really saddened to hear later that the man had passed away, because having found him, which was a miracle in itself in those conditions, we then worked so hard to get him out of the water, but ultimately to no avail.”
Allanson added: “It was a real shock receiving the award – to me, we were just doing our job, but I’m proud that our efforts have been recognised. The weather was dire, but as a SAR team we have to hope for the best case scenario – that there is some chance, no matter how small, that we can find someone and rescue them. Fear doesn’t really go through my mind when I’m being winched down towards the water, I’m just focused on the rescue at hand. I don’t have time to consider the risks or dangers because all I’m thinking about at that point is safely helping someone out of the water. I’m also conscious that the longer I’m in the water, the harder the guys in the helicopter are having to work; in this case they did an amazing job keeping me where I needed to be, for as long as I needed, to make sure I could get the man winched out of there. We were very sad that he didn’t pull through, despite our best efforts. The only solace we can take is that we could at least return him to his family.”
Airlift to the Azores
Another air rescue-related award went to Flt Sgt Steven Flavell. In December 2014, as a recently qualified duty manager at the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC), Kinloss little did Flavell know that his actions on his first unsupervised shift would end up saving the life of a merchant seaman who had suffered life threatening injuries on board a Panamanian registered bulk carrier, MV Long Glory, said the RAF. The vessel which was positioned 800 nautical miles (1,500 km) southwest of Ireland and 300 nautical miles (550 km) north of the Azores when the call for assistance was received. The area was too remote for any UK or Irish air asset involvement, but after a medical assessment onboard, it was determined that if the casualty were not transferred to a hospital for specialist treatment immediately then he would not survive his injuries. Without delay, Flavell planned and co-ordinated many foreign air assets to effect a medical transfer. By instructing the vessel to change its course toward Lajes Air Base in the Azores, and with consultation with the Delgarda Mission Control Centre, a point was calculated at which a Portuguese military EH 101 helicopter could intercept the vessel and be within range to transfer the casualty. Flavell’s planning and decisive actions were instrumental in bringing these rescue assets together, said the RAF.
On arrival at Lajes, the casualty was transferred to the Angra Do Herismo Hospital and was treated for his injuries. The medical team there stated that if the casualty had not been brought ashore and treated as quickly, he would have been unlikely to survive.
Flavell operated well above the standard expected and simultaneously continued to oversee other medical transfers whilst dealing with this urgent call for assistance, noted the RAF. For his outstanding professional approach and diligence whilst conducting his duty, he was awarded an Air Officers Commendation.
Get to the chopper
A Royal Navy SAR observer from HMS Gannet in southwest Scotland has received the Queens Commendation for Bravery after playing a crucial role in a rescue near Glencoe in the West Highlands in March 2014. Lt Commander Robin Suckling was a member of the helicopter SAR crew scrambled to search for two stranded climbers who had spent the night on Buachaille Etive Mòr mountain after being caught out in icy 60-mph (100-kph) winds, the Navy explained. The crew launched and routed in poor weather with low cloud, rain and strong winds to the scene. On arrival, they conducted a short search, obtained an updated position from the Mountain Rescue Team and quickly located the climbers at 3,350 ft (1,020 m) on the mountain’s summit.
The crew attempted a landing in the vicinity of the climbers, but had to abandon the approach due to gusty winds. Despite the severe turbulence and the precarious surface of the summit, a safe landing site was established about 100 m (330 ft) from the climbers. The Sea King’s position meant that it could at any time be blown into the air or start slipping on the hard icy surface. The climbers were not willing to walk to the aircraft, so Lt Cdr Suckling volunteered to leave the relative safety of the aircraft and go to their assistance, despite a considerable risk of avalanche. Getting close enough to shout to the climbers above the howling of the wind, he got them to don their own crampons and after several minutes of persuasion, they finally moved towards him. He then escorted them slowly and meticulously back to the aircraft, supporting a man who had an injured leg.
Suckling recalled: “I battled my way across the icy summit to the casualties, at one point I had to sit down on the snow for fear of being blown over on the exposed ridge. Once I managed to check that they were OK, I then had to persuade them to come with me to the Sea King. I got them safely onboard the aircraft and I’d say they were pretty relieved to see us.” The Sea King then transited carefully down the mountain to deliver them into safe hands of Mountain Rescue Team, before returning back to base at Prestwick.
Last but not least, a Merlin helicopter flight commander from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose has been awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service (QCVS) for his contribution to Operation Patwin in the Philippines in 2013, the UK’s humanitarian mission following the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan, which claimed the lives of at least 6,300 people. Lt Commander Edwin Cooper, who was 01 Flight Commander for 829 Naval Air Squadron serving onboard HMS Illustrious, led a team of engineers and aircrew responsible for maintaining and operating the Flight’s Merlin helicopter. Working to an exceptionally high tempo throughout, they achieved a remarkable flying record of twice the normal rate for any other recent UK operation and delivered over 103 tonnes of humanitarian aid as well as moving over 500 people during the relief mission.
Part of the Citation for Cooper’s award stated: “Lt Cdr Cooper has achieved something no other Merlin flight has ever done, encapsulating the core ethos of the Fleet Air Arm, delivering operational capability in spades whilst remaining an empathetic and judicious leader of people. Lt Cdr Cooper is an experienced observer and under his tutelage, 829 NAS 01 Flight was recognised as having achieved and sustained the highest operational capability.”
“It’s a tremendous honour and I’m very proud to be awarded the QCVS”, said Lt Cdr Edwin Cooper. “But in my eyes, this award is for the Flight. As individuals and as a team, we put in maximum effort to ensure the very capable Merlin was key to helping the people of the Philippines.”