SAR Aircrewman Receives Bravery Award
Sergeant Tony Russell of the Culdrose based Search and Rescue (SAR) 771 Naval Air Squadron has been presented with a bravery award for his involvement in a night-time rescue in extreme weather conditions where his own life was put at risk. Sergeant Russell (Royal Marines) demonstrated selfless bravery and sheer determination in the face of the most appalling conditions and for this has received the Billy Deacon SAR Memorial Trophy.
The Trophy was presented to Tony at the Air League’s Annual Awards Ceremony at St James Palace, on Thursday 31st May 2012 by HRH Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh. Sponsored by Bristow Helicopters and Breitling UK, the Trophy has been established to further the memory of Mr Billy Deacon who was tragically lost while carrying out his duty as winchman with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency Search and Rescue helicopter based at Sumburgh in the Shetland Isles in 1997. The Billy Deacon SAR Memorial Trophy is awarded to winchmen / winch operators from the Coastguard, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force for meritorious service during SAR helicopter operations from UK SAR bases. The award committee, independently chaired by the Operations Director of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, sits annually to consider nominations.
On Thursday 07 July 2011, Sergeant Tony Russell was the Aircrewman and winchman onboard Rescue Helicopter 193, 771 Naval Air Squadron's duty Search and Rescue aircraft. At 21:13, Rescue 193 was scrambled by Falmouth Coastguard following activation of an emergency locator beacon from a Swedish registered yacht, the ANDRIETTE. The distress signal indicated that the yacht was 110 nautical miles offshore in the South West Approaches.
The weather was extreme: Night, force 5 winds, sea state 6 and a heavy 4 metre swell. During the transit to the scene, updates regarding the condition of the vessel were received from the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre and a large merchant vessel (MV “NIRINT CANADA”) that was attempting to close the yacht's position but was still some hours away. It quickly became clear the yacht had lost all means of steerage, her engine was unserviceable, the sails could not be hoisted and the crew were considering abandoning. Due to her size and extremely heavy sea conditions the MV “NIRINT CANADA” was unable to close and manoeuvre in order to attempt a rescue; therefore the Royal Navy Helicopter from Culdrose was the only option.
Battling strong headwinds and heavy rain squalls with significantly degraded night vision goggle performance, Rescue helicopter 193 arrived to find the yacht moving violently and unpredictably; pitching 30-40 degrees and rolling 50-60 degrees in an increased sea state 7 and winds in excess of 40 knots. It was quickly evident that the situation on board was perilous. Crippled and beyond the range of other rescue assets time was critical. Although hazardous, it was assessed the safest option was a hi-line transfer from the yacht’s life-raft. Consequently the 2 crew abandoned the yacht and with the life-raft sufficiently displaced, a hi-line winch rescue was attempted. The hi-line was unsuccessful, excessive sea states prevented the survivors reaching out to collect the line. Tony immediately volunteered for a conventional winch rescue.
Breaking its tether the life-raft broke free and began to rapidly drift clear of the yacht, removing all visual references for the pilots. As Tony was lowered into the darkness he became engulfed by 20 foot waves which disabled his voice communications with the aircraft, however, he calmly gave the Observer hand signals to continue and eventually reached the sea surface. Rapidly alternating between being submerged and then suddenly 20 foot clear of the sea surface, Tony finally managed to grasp a trailing painter and physically haul himself into the life-raft.
Quickly checking the panicked survivors, he calmly reassured them and prepared to recover the most vulnerable. Signalling to the aircraft, Tony and the first survivor, were violently dragged back into the air and through the water, however, as they rose the life-raft was capsized by the waves and the remaining survivor lost from sight. Once in the aircraft Tony immediately returned to the open cargo door ready to be winched down again, fearing that the last survivor had been lost. He was winched back towards the life-raft, again buffeted by waves and managed to swim to the inverted raft.
There was no sign of the 2nd survivor so with selfless disregard for his own life and without hesitation, he dived under the raft, surfacing in an air pocket where he found the remaining survivor. As he attempted to return to the surface to signal to the aircraft that he was okay and had found the last sailor, the panicked survivor, fearing for his life, gripped Tony’s arm preventing him from surfacing. Trapped underwater, in a sea state 7 with the winchwire pulling in one direction and the survivor the other, Tony fought for breath and managed to rejoin the survivor in the air pocket. As the winch wire was raised the rescue hook caught on a life-raft handle, and combined with the downwash of the helicopter, flipped the life-raft upright, tossing Tony into the water and the unrestrained survivor back into the raft as it rolled. Cutting the winch hook free, Tony swam back to the survivor and placed him in a strop. Tony had to cut away more entanglement before he and the survivor were finally winched away from the raft and pitched back into the sea and swell.
After more than 30 minutes in the water, Tony had rescued both survivors demonstrating selfless bravery, sheer determination and tenacity in the face of the most appalling conditions. He refused to give up despite the clear and significant risk to his own life, displaying the utmost professionalism, courage and fighting spirit. There is no doubt that had it not been for Sergeant Tony Russell’s bravery and sheer physical determination these men would have perished at sea and for this he has been awarded the Billy Deacon SAR Memorial Trophy.
“I am absolutely delighted for Sergeant Russell on the award of this highly prestigious trophy” said Lt Cdr Martin Shepherd, Commanding Officer 771 Naval Air Squadron. “Sergeant Russell epitomises the ‘true grit’ spirit of the aircrewman branch and Royal Marine cadre by his composed, calm yet highly professional manner in which he carried out the rescue. This trophy is a fitting tribute to not only to him for his key role in this extremely challenging rescue, but also for the whole crew involved.”
“I am totally knocked back by this award” said a clearly astonished Sgt Tony Russell RM after receiving the award from HRH Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh at a glittering ceremony in London. “I never really thought about the danger other than when I went under and didn’t think I was going to make it. You just have to focus, rely on your training, trust in my colleagues to work together and of course, crack on!”