Cheating the sea – the life of a Search and Rescue Pilot

Today sees the publication of RESCUE PILOT, the memoir of Jerry Grayson, the youngest helicopter pilot to ever serve in the Royal Navy, and by the age of 25, the most decorated peacetime naval pilot in history.

I was asked in a recent Australian radio interview, “What was the biggest danger you faced when flying Search and Rescue missions?” Without hesitation I was able to reply, “A flying car.” It’s perhaps not the first thing that might pop into anybody’s head when talking about flying a helicopter but the event is seared into my memory and is one of the stories told in my book Rescue Pilot, published today. In brief summary can I suggest that if you’re rushing to a clifftop to watch a helicopter hovering beneath you it’s a very good idea to apply the handbrake firmly before leaving your car!

There are a couple of other good pieces of advice in the book such as “Never walk close to the edge of a cliff, it will crumble” and “Don’t go out to sea on a li-lo when the wind is blowing offshore”, but mainly it’s a collection of stories – some funny, some tragic – about a very average guy who was fortunate enough to be allowed to do an extraordinary job. Some days were spent plucking holiday makers from the cliffs of Cornwall (and avoiding flying cars!) while other days were long, fraught and intense. Chapter 1 (available for free at ) narrates just such a day when my diver, my aircrewman, the doctor and I spent many hours watching a Greek cargo ship slowly stagger its way towards an inevitable demise on the rocks of North Cornwall. It was not until we wished the crew a fond farewell and goodnight that they decided they would like to abandon ship after all.

No such persuasion was needed for the yacht crews battling with unprecedented seas during the infamous Fastnet Race disaster of 1979. I have never seen seas like it, before or since. The poor yachtsmen had sailed right into the teeth of the storm and not all of them were to come out of it. It was while reading Nick Ward’s extraordinary book Left For Dead that I suddenly realised it was time to write down some of these tales from the perspective of a Search and Rescue Pilot. At the time it was just the job we did, but as the years passed I increasingly realised that I’d been privileged to experience some extremes that others would find hard to believe.

But amongst all the drama there was also a good deal of laughter and HRH Prince Andrew, in his kind foreword, hits the nail on the head when he says “Reading this book I am also reminded of the undeniably strong camaraderie of aviators as well as the wonderful sense of humour that arises in the face of adversity.”

I’m forever grateful to the team at Bloomsbury who have taken this project to their hearts and published it in the year that the baton for SAR passes finally from the military to the civilian sector. It’s a controversial move with some interesting birthing pains but I have no doubt that the naval tradition of telling stories to each other will carry forward. My biggest hope for Rescue Pilot is that it will serve as a celebration of all that has gone before in the 61 years of SAR in the Fleet Air Arm and of all the people who have given so much and saved so many. If our website at and the associated Facebook page act as a conduit to those who served together then the launch of the book at the National Maritime Museum tonight will not be an end but just a beginning.

RESCUE PILOT is available to buy from all good bookshops and online retailers. You can get a 10% discount if you buy the book direct from our website: It is also available as an ebook.