We will soon be publishing the official illustrated history of the Royal Air Force’s Search and Rescue Force, following its disbanding in 2016. In this blog, author and aviation journalist Paul E Eden highlights a few moments that stood out to him during the writing of the book. (All photos herein are UK MoD Crown Copyright.)
When I was four, the ‘real’ Father Christmas gave me a Matchbox Spitfire model kit when we visited his in-store grotto. I guess Grandad’s three decades in the Royal Air Force qualified him for the job of building and painting it, but I was immediately fascinated. The Ladybird Book of Aircraft appeared under the tree that year and I was hooked.
The model and book were the seeds of a passion that blossomed under the fertile skies of East Anglia. Born and raised in the Cambridgeshire Fens, I grew up to the sound of jet noise through the 1970s and 80s. These were the days of NATO exercises, when one could barely travel a country lane without stumbling upon an RAF station.
Much later, equipped with a combination of unbridled enthusiasm, an eclectic knowledge and fundamental lack of flying aptitude, I successfully applied for an assistant aviation editor’s position. It was the beginning of a career I never expected and still haven’t planned for.
In 2003, I went freelance and in a serendipitous turn of fate, a publisher was subsequently sufficiently satisfied with my work on one of their magazines to offer me editorship of another, the Royal Air Force Official Annual Review. I compiled my first in 2011 and most recent in 2019, with a 2020 cover date; circumstances very much beyond anyone’s control mean there almost certainly won’t be a 2021 edition.
Through Review I understood for the first time, the extreme professionalism that’s intrinsic to frontline aviation and, with the pick of RAF operations available to me, I chose the very best stories through which to illustrate it. Knowing that the RAF Search and Rescue Force was scheduled for disbandment, in 2012 I decided to showcase the skill and professionalism that typified RAF SAR crews by looking at a couple of operations from the previous 12 months.
I chose the 25 March 2012 event when a Sea King crew from 202 Sqn’s ‘A’ Flight, operating out of RAF Boulmer, Northumberland, launched in response to a gas leak and fire on the Elgin Well head platform, and the Swanland rescue of 26/27 November 2011. The profound experience of researching and writing the story remained with me and when it was suggested soon after that I might tackle an official, illustrated history of RAF SAR, there was never any doubt that I’d do it.
In the Elgin operation, the Sea King took a particularly unusual role, standing off to use the superior view provided by altitude, and the crew’s well-honed communications skills, to act as rescue coordinator. With seven helicopters engaged, among them another RAF Sea King and a Norwegian SAR aircraft, Flight Lieutenants Iain Cuthbertson and Gareth Dore, and Flight Sergeants Nigel Mortimer and Andrew Rowland managed the situation with skill and calm professionalism.
The November 2011 incident was quite different. The cargo ship MV Swanland was swamped in heavy seas west of Lleyn Peninsula in the Irish Sea. Laden with 3,000 tons of building stone, the vessel broke up and sank, leaving its crew little time to abandon ship. A Sea King HAR3 from ‘C’ Flight, 22 Sqn, RAF Valley, was the first helicopter on scene, effecting a rescue that was dramatic, dangerous and tragic in turn.
The mission could have been flown by any RAF crew on any rough night. This abridged extract from The Official Illustrated History of RAF Search and Rescue ought to be considered with that in mind.
Flight Lieutenant Thomas ‘Sticky’ Bunn was on shift the night of the Swanland mission. “I was the 22 Sqn, ‘C’ Flt Op Captain that night. Flight Lieutenant William Wales was my co-pilot, Sergeant Graeme ‘Livvy’ Livingston my RadOp [radar operator] and MACr [Master Aircrewman] Richard ‘Rich T’ Taylor was winchman. The wind was already howling when we went to bed and I half expected the ‘job phone’ to ring that night, but hoped it wouldn’t.
“The phone woke William at 02:20hrs and we learnt it was an overwater ‘wet job’ which, from a flying point of view, was preferable to going to the mountains in 40kt of wind and rain at night. We quickly became aware that this was a serious job, with the coastguard reporting a ship breaking up 30 miles southwest of RAF Valley. As a crew we knew this wasn’t an everyday job and as I got into my immersion suit the adrenaline was flowing.”
Wales takes up the story: “The call came into my bedroom at Valley – the co-pilot’s bedroom had the phone next to the bed; it always woke me with a jump! Collecting all the information I needed and waking the others, I could already hear the wind and rain outside. Then I walked into the ops room and heard Holyhead coastguard blaring out a mayday call to all vessels and realised this was a little bigger than I’d first thought.”
Wales described the rescue scene as chaotic as the crew set about checking debris and liferafts. Having seen sailors safe in one dinghy, attention turned to looking for survivors in the water. Then: “We found another liferaft… and put the winchman down, in fierce conditions, to check inside, but there was no one in it. Then the liferaft rolled, with Rich T inside.”
“We elected to put me down,” Taylor recalls. “It was quite challenging. The pilots ended up having to fly manually. After several attempts at getting me inside, I ended up in the water alongside it, then a big wave lifted me up and carried me into the dinghy. It was pitch black inside because the aircraft had moved away quite a bit. I began searching the raft. And that’s when it rolled over.
“I was under the water for some time and the pilots and winch operator were quite concerned. If they’d just winched in, they could have dragged me through something and injured me, so they had to let the situation develop. Luckily, I popped up, in a bit of a spluttering mess, but on the wrong side of the dinghy. I had to swim underneath to get back to the aircraft side. They recovered me and I was pretty pooped; it was really swim for your life stuff.”
Sticky recalls: “Livvy reported Rich T swinging towards and entering the water, and then the dingy flipping. This wasn’t pretty and I feared for him. At some point he came out of the dinghy and we recovered him back to the aircraft. Our hearts sank when Rich told us the dinghy was empty.”
From his seat beside Sticky, Flt Lt Wales had an intimate view of his captain in action. “He remained calm and in control throughout. He had to fly the rescue manually, a tricky procedure for non-SAR crews; normally we would use the RadOp in the back, with a joystick to steer the hovering aircraft over the liferaft. However, in this case the kit wasn’t working because the waves were so big, and Sticky had to fly it with minimal visual cues, because it was so dark and there were walls of water coming at him.”
With Rich T safely back in the cabin, the crew was determined to find the first dinghy. On the way, the helicopter flew over a large debris field and an emergency beacon broke through on the radios. “We became hopeful this was where we would find survivors and started to search methodically upwind. We saw survival aids, floats, doors and lots of debris ripped from the ship, but no survivors,” Sticky remembers. “This was when it hit home that a ship really had gone down. Right there.”
Research for the book revealed many rescues every bit as skilled as that flown by Flt Lt Bunn and crew. Among them, a mission flown by Flight Lieutenant Christian ‘Taff’ Wilkins and crew in March 2013, when winchman Sergeant Rachael Robinson made six separate hazardous descents to reach a grievously injured French trawlerman in atrocious weather off Milford Haven, is one of several that stand out.
There were also occasional humorous or peculiar events to discover, including a September 1955 sortie in which a 275 Sqn Sycamore helicopter crew lowered a bucket and collected freshly caught fish from a boat.
But the book is about much more than helicopter SAR, extending back to the RAF’s formation in 1918 and to 2020, albeit that SAR Force disbanded in 2015. Trawling the archives and discovering these stories has been a privilege – having the opportunity to pass them on is even more so.
We publish The Official Illustrated History of RAF Search and Rescue on 9th July. You can buy it from all good bookshops (ISBN 978-1-4729-6090-0, RRP £25) or direct from our website (with a 10% discount) here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-official-illustrated-history-of-raf-search-and-rescue-9781472960900/