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Lt Cdr RT Calhaem


Published: 08 Dec 2015

Having carried out over 40 years of rescue operations from RNAS Culdrose, saving thousands of lives, 771 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) has entered into its last month of search and rescue tasking. 


On 1st January 2016, the baton of responsibility will be passed onto the Maritime and Coastguard Agency contractor Bristow Helicopters, based at Newquay airport. 


Before handing over to the MCA and Bristow, it will be business as usual for 771 as they continue to deliver search and rescue coverage across the Southwest 24 hours a day.


Commanding Officer of 771 Naval Air Squadron, Lieutenant Commander Dick Calhaem explained that the squadron would not be slowing down: “It will be business as usual for 771, right up until the moment we pass the baton on to the Bristow team at Newquay.  We tend to get a wide variety of jobs in December; in the past we have carried out all kinds of rescues from sailors in distress, tourists stuck on cliffs after storm watching, walkers cut off by the tides and over the Christmas period, watersports enthusiasts trying out their equipment.  One Boxing Day, the squadron was involved in a rescue mission involving nine Canoeists!  We do not expect the pace to relent and the 771 team will continue to be ready to react to whatever tasking comes our way.” 


To ensure a smooth handover, 771 personnel have been liaising with the new Bristow Helicopter team at Newquay, many of whom have been based on the squadron themselves.  Lieutenant Commander Calhaem said: “A lot of the new Bristow team are ex-771 so they are very familiar with the Cornish Coastline and should know the ropes well!”


771 Naval Air Squadron has been ‘on call’ 24 hours a day, every day of the year since 1974, saving many lives in some of the most hazardous conditions imaginable, often putting their own lives at risk.  Before 1974, the unit was based at RNAS Portland.


At 15 minutes notice by day and 45 minutes by night (although they usually get airborne in less), the Squadron is capable of operating within a 200 nautical mile radius of Culdrose.  They carry out over 200 rescues a year, ranging from plucking sailors from sinking ships, to airlifting casualties of road traffic accidents to hospital and assisting the police in carrying out aerial searches for missing people.


A 771 crew consist of two Pilots, an Observer and an Aircrewman, who is also a trained ambulance technician.  The duty crew are on call for 24 hours and are backed up by a standby crew, at 45 minutes notice, should additional helicopter support be necessary. 


A great deal of skill is needed from all onboard; the pilot must keep the aircraft steady often in terrifying winds and over high waves, the observer navigates and keeps an eye on fuel and safety and the Aircrewman takes charge of the winch and recovering the casualty.


To keep them airworthy and ready to fly at a moments notice, the squadron relies on its team of engineers and technicians, who are often to be found working through the night to keep the aircraft serviceable.  This is no mean feat considering that many aircraft are over 30 years old!


Their assistance to mariners in distress has gained them numerous awards and bravery medals, for rescues including the Fastnet race of 1979, the Boscastle Floods of 2004, the MSC Napoli in January 2007 and more recently aiding the crews of the stricken ‘Panamera’ and ‘La Sillon’. 


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