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Library Reference Number: 193

Four Hundred Rescues But How Many Real Saves?

Sqd Ldr Bill Campbell, AFC, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA
Updated November 2015 by the Author

Searching my logbook for stories I tallied for the first time the total number of Search and Rescue missions I had taken part in as 400 over 17 years of flying tours in a 27-year SAR career. Out of curiosity I looked at each one to pick out those where I could with virtual certainty say that if we hadn't been there then someone would have lost their life.

There were many occasions where we simply provided the transport between the immediate lifesavers such as the RAF and civilian Mountain Rescue Teams, the RNLI or the NHS Ambulance Service and the medical teams in hospital. On some occasions we were the first responders and managed to deliver casualties alive to the medics. We evacuated sinking and burning ships and snowbound trains, carried pregnant mums, transplant patients and organs. Very infrequently we responded to aircraft accidents, the only type of incident for which we were established. In most cases, lack of follow-up information, sometimes due to medical confidentiality, prevented us determining whether we could justifiably claim a life saved. Surprisingly, I could only find three rescues which fitted the description.

One was undoubtedly the 1971 Cairngorm rescue where minutes after we located one of the 2 survivors the location was enveloped in cloud and locating them after that would have been a million to one chance. The other two incidents were separated by much time and distance.

In May 1968 I was one of a three-man Whirlwind 10 crew from 22 Squadron Detachment at RAF Chivenor in North Devon temporarily carrying out stand-by at RAF Thorney Island in Hampshire and recorded one of the quickest jobs in my logbook, the rescue of 2 young men from a capsized dinghy in a total flying time, take-off to landing, of 15 minutes. It transpired that the young men had just purchased the dinghy and this was its maiden voyage. Shortly after leaving shore in a brisk wind the dinghy had capsized just off the north-west corner of Hayling Island, about 2 miles from the airfield.

We raced across Hayling Island and quickly spotted the capsized dinghy with one person clinging to the hull. As we got closer we saw that he was pointing back along the direction we had approached but as we had seen nothing on the run-in we continued and quickly winched him into the cabin. He then told us that his friend was swimming ashore so we back-tracked and soon spotted a head with arms laboriously splashing away and getting nowhere. We immediately went into a procedure we had practised hundreds of times at the end of winching sessions where we threw caution to the winds and went hell-for-leather for the casualty in what we termed the 'Drowning Man' routine. We were downwind at around 50 feet by this time and had to get back into wind as quickly as possible. As we passed abeam the swimmer, who was getting lower in the water, the pilot jinked left to give himself room for a tight right turn and began descending in the turn while I winched out the winch-man. As we dashed the final few yards we saw the classic image of a drowning man, the hand sliding below the waves and then he was gone. I kept my eyes glued to the spot where he'd gone down, talked the pilot to the overhead, he flared the aircraft, I called "Down Five" (feet) to splash the winch-man into the water with some force to beat the residual buoyancy of his wet suit. Our aim was good; there was a thrashing in the water as the winch-man groped with his feet and then I saw his arched back as he used his feet to pull the casualty towards his hands. I saw the winch-man's head surface, he gave a backward nod of the head and was not making any move to put the strop round his man; we were in for a manual lift where the winch-man clamps his limbs around the survivor and uses all his strength to keep hold of him as they're winched to the cabin, an extremely difficult job with a slippery, comatose body. As soon as they reached the cabin door the winch-man forced the survivor forward onto the floor, got himself inboard and immediately stood astride him, put his arms around the lad's waist and hauled him off the floor. Water gushed from his mouth in a torrent. The winch-man lowered the still lifeless body to the floor but before we even had time to check for a pulse the lad gave a cough and splutter and was back in the land of the living. He was still very cold and all four limbs rapidly cramped up till he was like a crab on the floor. We flew him direct to the Station Sick Quarters where the duty doctor and his staff gently re-warmed him. He and his friend left the station a few hours later, seemingly in good repair. For us, we were chuffed to bits, a fifteen minute job and a definite life saved, and the only time I ever used the 'Drowning Man' routine for real.

The other rescue took place in September 1985 near the Faeroe Islands, nearly 700 miles to the north and on this occasion we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. This one doesn't actually appear in my logbook but I had tucked inside it a 'thank you' telex from the Faroese as I did take an active part in this rescue. I had been the Flight Navigator and Radar/Winch Operator on Sea Kings at D Flight 202 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth for 3½ years when I lost my flying category due to a bout of vertigo in 1982 and was on a ground tour at the Rescue Co-ordination Centre at RAF Pitreavie Castle near Dunfermline. During my time at Lossie we had discussed an overseas visit to the SAR forces on Iceland, the indigenous Icelandic Coastguard and USAF assets. One reason for wanting to go that far was to demonstrate to our principal clients, the RAF fighter boys, just how far the Sea King could reach compared with its short-range predecessors the Whirlwind and the Wessex. The arrangements for the trip hadn't been finalised before my grounding but came to fruition in 1982 shortly after I left.

A further sortie was planned in 1985 but finding a full crew of four for such a sortie (unimaginatively called a LONGSAR) often proved difficult; a full crew was 2 pilots, a radar/winch operator and winch-man but for transit sorties a crew of three was legal by the SAR book of rules. However, the trip was to be over 5 days and no-one on SAR would want to be away for that length of time with a limited crew just in case an opportunity for a rescue presented itself. So I received a call from my ex-buddies at Lossiemouth asking if I would like to go as a 'passenger' with the promise that I could sit in my old seat in the radar shack and help out with the radar as required.

We set off on 9th September 1985 carrying well under the full fuel load of 6500 pounds as we were carrying a ground-crew team and their servicing equipment and so had split the route into 3 stages, Lossiemouth to Vagar Airport in the Faroe Islands, thence to Hornafjördur (Hofn) Airport in south-east Iceland and finally to our destination at the USAF base at Keflavik, west of the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.

Unfortunately the weather was rubbish and stayed that way for the whole 5 days. We flew all the way to Keflavik under a 400 foot cloud-base with poor visibility and a strong east-south-easterly wind. We did manage to route via the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago (the Islands of the West Men - 9th century Irish slaves) to view the the capital, Heimaey, which was partially destroyed by molten lava in 1973, but the poor weather put paid to our planned flying days exploring the spectacular scenery of Iceland. There was some consolation in being able to explore Reykjavik (with roast gannet breast for supper!) and to experience the unique volcanic ash roads leading to the original Geysir with fantastic spouts of boiling water and to Gulfoss waterfall and Thingvellir (ancient seat of the Icelandic Parliament); and, to our great surprise, we were entertained at a cocktail party by the British Embassy where we were introduced to leaders of the various Icelandic life-saving agencies.

However, the highlight of the whole trip happened as we were approaching Vagar Airport for our first refuelling stop on the outbound journey.

When we checked in around 1100 hours with the Vagar Approach Controller he asked us if we had sufficient fuel to assist them with a SAR mission. A surface search had been ongoing since the previous night for a lone fisherman who had failed to return to his home port on Sandoy Island. The SAR authorities had been frustrated that the Lynx helicopter from the Danish frigate HDMS Vaedderen, on station in the Islands, had been grounded for maintenance.

With just a few minutes spare fuel available our aircraft captain, Flt Lt Ted Mustard, decided that the best we could do was to fly up the wind-lanes from the harbour of departure on Sandoy. The wind had been constant for some time and the trail of spume was easy to follow. Visibility remained poor, at best 2 miles, the sea was grey with lots of white-caps and we were looking for a light grey 15-foot open boat with a fisherman dressed in jeans and a grey sweater! The track of the wind-lanes missed the rest of the islands and, projecting ahead, the next landfall for our missing man would be somewhere on south-east Iceland, 200 miles away.

We trundled on, past the last of the islands and after about fifteen minutes were getting a bit low on fuel when our co-pilot, US Coastguard exchange officer Lt Dick Wright, spotted something dead-ahead. Sure enough, around 30 miles out to sea, there was the little grey boat and there was someone on board; we came alongside but there was no response from the occupant although he was sitting bolt upright. A rapid discussion ensued; Rick Bragg (of the Finneagle crew) would operate the winch. Was I happy to go down on the wire? You bet! It was a simple job, the boat was reasonably stable despite the wind and Rick placed me neatly beside the still unresponsive occupant. I stood in front of him, said hello, waved my fingers in front of his eyes but still got absolutely no response. I just put him in the strops, grabbed his bag and we were winched into the chopper. We then flew him to the Thorshavn hospital landing site where he was fit enough to walk to the ambulance although still in some kind of trance.

The weather was still as bad throughout our return journey from Keflavik 5 days later and we took 9½ hours to get back to Lossie. We were disappointed at having gone all that way and missing out on some exciting flying but chuffed to bits at the impromptu rescue.

Postscript to the Faroese Fisherman story:

  1. At the time of writing this postscript (2015) the fisherman is alive and well and still living in the Faroe Islands and I have been told that 'he was very glad and proud that day to have been rescued by the RAF" and "wouldn't mind if I wrote about his rescue". A copy has been sent to him and it's great to know that we played a part in giving him at least an extra 30 years of life. (Thanks to Hanna á Reynatúgvu, Manager, Sandoy Tourist Information for locating our survivor and acting as intermediary.)
  2. Ted Mustard told me that his original choice for this LONGSAR had been Norway, but he was over-ruled by 'higher authority' and told that Iceland was to be the destination. It would appear that some other 'higher authority' was looking after the interests of our Faroese fisherman.

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