771 NAS crew awarded national bravery award
A Royal Navy helicopter rescue crew has today been recognised for outstanding teamwork and professionalism during the successful recovery of five fishermen off the Cornish coast, at a national awards ceremony held by maritime charity the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society.
The crew from 771 Naval Air Squadron, based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, was presented with the Edward and Maisie Lewis Award by the Society’s Patron, HRH The Princess Royal. The crew members were Kapitänleutnant Steffen Volkwein FGN (Pilot and Aircraft Commander), Lieutenant Paul Smalley RN (Co-pilot), Lieutenant Commander Paul Robertson RN (Observer and Winch Operator) and Petty Officer Mark Richardson (Aircrewman and Winchman).
On 3 November 2013, the crew took part in the gallant rescue of five fishermen from sinking French fishing vessel ‘Panamera’ in atrocious conditions, battling high winds in near complete darkness and with no visible horizon. This was made worse by the failure of their aircraft’s floodlights and a language barrier between the French fishermen and the English speaking air crew. Despite these problems and with only a couple of minutes of time left afloat towards the end of the rescue, the crew managed to get all five fishermen safely to shore uninjured.
After the rescue, Petty Officer (Aircrewman) Mark Richardson said: “The wind at the time was a gale force 8, gusting more than 45 knots, with a 4-5 metre swell. When the fishing crew decided it was time to ‘abandon ship’ they deployed their life rafts, however these were very quickly lost due to the wind conditions and it was down to the Royal Navy to winch them up to safety.”
Pilot, Lieutenant Paul Smalley said: “The vessel began to heavily list as we began to lift the sailors onboard the helicopter. The Panamera had also lost its steerage which meant the vessel was surfing the waves rapidly making it difficult to get a stable platform and to maintain a hover.”
Two of the sailors were winched to safely and a third was winched as the vessel was sinking – sliding down the starboard side of the boat as it moved. Luckily when he entered the water, he kept hold of the strop which would lift him into the aircraft. The final two had to jump into the water and Lieutenant Smalley maintained visual contact by playing his searchlight between the two. Petty Officer Richardson was then winched down. He was frequently engulfed by the waves but was able to grab the hand of each survivor in turn and get them into the single lift strop allowing them to be winched to the safety of the aircraft. Petty Officer Richardson added: “It was close and I was concerned that if we didn’t get a move on they would be swept away.” He added “It was only us on the scene at the time so we couldn’t make any mistakes.”
The Charity’s Skill and Gallantry Awards took place on Tuesday 7 October at Fishmongers’ Hall in London. HRH The Princess Royal attended the ceremony and presented the awards. Currently in its 175th year the Charity still recognises the hard work and bravery demonstrated by those who dedicate their lives to protecting Britain’s seafarers.
Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society Chief Executive, Commodore Malcolm Williams, said: “This incident epitomises the unique mixture of leadership, teamwork, skill and bravery that enables these crews to effect such amazing rescues. Despite technological advances, we still rely upon the bravery of rescue crews and individuals to help those in danger around our coast. We are proud to be able to reward the gallantry of those who risk their lives for the safety of others.”