British Pathé, a UK-based former producer of newsreels and documentaries, recently uploaded a number of vintage air rescue clips to YouTube. While very much products of their respective time periods and countries of origin, with the British footage, for example, characterised by overly-dramatic, almost intrusive music and golly-gosh cut-glass narration, they nevertheless provide a fascinating insight into the history of air rescue operations.
One early clip dates from 1948, and depicts a US Coast Guard (USCG) seaplane searching for a DC3 passenger plane that had made an emergency landing on a beach in the Bahamas (not necessarily the worst place to be marooned, although the clip does show that the stranded passengers had written ‘no water’ in giant letters in the sand). The USCG plane is seen dropping food and water before retrieving the civilians.
Another clip from 1950, complete with music from a swelling string section, shows a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) parachute rescue squad engaging in Operation Snowbound, a training exercise in Ontario involving a mock crash, using Dakota planes. Interestingly, shortly after this particular footage was taken, the crews needed to head off on a real rescue operation.
An early use of a helicopter is featured in a clip from 1951, which shows personnel from the UK Royal Navy Safety Equipment and Survival Training School engaging in a staged rescue at sea using a Westland Whirlwind, ‘a prototype of the air sea rescue helicopters with which all our aircraft carriers’ would shortly be equipped, according to the voiceover. The clip illustrates an extremely important turning point in the lineage of aerial rescue in the UK, as the narrator explains: “Britain has learned a lot since the days of 1940. Now with a helicopter, the rescuers can hover directly over a selected position, and hoist a man onboard by means of cable and winch.” The rest, as they say, is history.
There are then two clips from 1955, one of which takes a dramatic turn for wholly unexpected reasons. The footage shows an exercise taking place in the English Channel, where a man in a dinghy demonstrating a new air sea rescue technique: using a radar beacon to guide a UK Royal Air Force No. 22 Search and Rescue Squadron Whirlwind helicopter to his position. The helicopter then uses a scoop to retrieve the man from the water. However, later in the clip, the helicopter’s engine cuts out, and it plunges into the sea, narrowly missing a nearby Navy ship. “A miraculous escape,” observes the narrator, drily. Another clip from the same year shows personnel – including some women, a fact that is of tremendous interest to the narrator – from the UK Royal Navy Air Station at Ford, Sussex, engaging in another training exercise, with smoke flares guiding a helicopter to the position of a lone individual stranded in the sea. A net is then employed to retrieve the individual. The narrator’s earnest sign-off is priceless: “It is this type of cheerful courage, coupled with the ingenuity of men of the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, that is gradually winning the peace-time battle with nature.”
A clip from 1956 shows the US Air Force’s 66th Air Rescue Squadron – nicknamed ‘the body snatchers’ – taking off from their base in Kent, UK in an amphibious SA-16 Albatross plane, to locate stricken survivors in the English Channel. “Jobs like this are right up their street,” says the narration, “or should we say, ‘down their Channel’.”
Moving on a few years, two clips from the 1960s offer further insights. One, from 1965, shows personnel from both the UK Royal Navy and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) engaging in training with dinghies and a rescue helicopter. When the WRAF personnel are winched down onto the rescue launch boat, the narrator cheekily notes that those onboard ‘couldn’t do enough for the girls, it was the biggest break they’d ever had – they’d been expecting men!’, demonstrating that the past truly is a different country, for gender relations as well as air rescue techniques.
A later clip, from 1967, shows US Air Force Sea King helicopters engaging in a jungle rescue flight during the Vietnam War, searching for downed Marine pilots. Stirring, triumphant music soundtracks the search, which is ultimately successful, and the narrator signs off with these immortal words: “Two more fighting men bless their rescuers and that wonderful flying machine – the helicopter!”
You can view three of the videos below: