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HMS Gannet SAR Sea King
HMS Gannet SAR Sea King

HMS Gannet SAR rescues three walkers

Published: 30 Oct 2012

The Royal Navy’s duty crew from the UK’s busiest search and rescue unit has rescued three walkers in the Trossachs.  

En route back to their Ayrshire base from routine training in Glen Coe, the HMS Gannet- based team from Prestwick was diverted to the incident by police.  

The call from the distressed walkers was received by the police just before 3pm (on Tuesday October 23) and, though the Killin Mountain Rescue Team had also been called out, they were more than an hour from the suspected scene. Details of the tasking have only just emerged.  

Coincidentally, police on the ground had spotted the Mark 5 Sea King helicopter flying past them en route to Ayrshire and had radioed the aircraft directly. As a result, not a moment was lost in the helicopter arriving at Beinn a Chroin, a 3,090ft munro.  

The three walkers had begun their day out in the mountains in clear weather, but had been caught out by cloud closing in around them near the summit. None of them had a map or compass with them and they were using a smartphone to navigate. Having been caught in the mist, the climbers had become disorientated and cold.  

We were on scene almost immediately,” explained Petty Officer Mike ‘H’ Henson, duty aircrewman on board, who is also trained to ambulance technician standard. “But it quickly became clear that we would not be able to get as close to the walkers as we might have liked – the cloud base was at about 2,300ft.

Obviously we can’t simply fly into thick cloud, so we managed to put the helicopter down on a rocky buttress as far up as we could.  

Throughout all of this we had managed to communicate with the walkers by mobile phone via the police and had a reasonable idea of where they might be.  

But trying to guide someone down a mountain in thick fog is not ideal, so I decided to leave the helicopter and climb to find them – we had initially thought we would get them to walk towards the sound of the aircraft, but following sound in low visibility is notoriously unpredictable and the noise can also bounce around in the hills, so we didn’t want them to be any more lost than they already were.”  

Leaving the helicopter on the mountainside, H then climbed some 500-600 feet and found the stranded walkers in about 15 minutes, uninjured, but cold. The visibility was approximately 130ft (40 metres).  

Fortunately they had a whistle which they were able to blow to give me an indication of where they were – the easiest thing was to tell them to stay in one place and for me to go to them,” continued H. “They had been lost for about two hours by the time I got there.  

Although none of them were hurt, the job was still pretty urgent – at the very least it would have taken them two hours to walk off the mountain, even if they had known where they were going.  

If they’d been up there much longer we would have been getting more towards a night time job, with all the extra risk that brings for both the aircraft and the mountain rescue teams – so we avoided the incident escalating into something which certainly could have become much more serious. I guess we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  

On the positive side, the walkers were wearing hi-vis clothing and had got whistles with them, which ended up playing a vital role in me being able to locate them. 

However, it is not a good idea to venture into the mountains, no matter how clear the day, without having a proper map and compass with you – and knowing how to use them. It doesn’t take much for the weather to close in around you and mobile phone reception can be notoriously fickle.”  

By the time the group got back to the helicopter, the aircraft was running low on fuel and was forced to refuel at Killin after safely delivering the group to the police’s control point near Crianlarich.  

The crew returned to base at 5.20pm, with the rescue having taken two hours and 20 minutes – including the routine training, the aircraft’s sortie was a total of four hours and 20 minutes.  

HMS Gannet’s full crew was pilots Lieutenant Commanders Craig Sweeney and Geoff Richardson, observer [navigator] Lieutenant Richie Lightfoot and Petty Officer Mike ‘H’ Henson.

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