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Fleet Air Arm celebrates 60 years of helicopter SAR

Published: 30 Jan 2013

On the January 31 1953, 12 Dragonfly HR1/HR3 helicopters from 705 Naval Air Squadron based at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Gosport/HMS Siskin responded to urgent requests for help following extensive flooding in East Anglia and The Netherlands. In the course of seven hours’ flying, more than 840 people were rescued – one single pilot accounted for 111 of those rescues, while another carried out 102. For their life-saving efforts, the Commanding Officer of the 705 Sqn Lieutenant Commander HR Spedding received the MBE and Aircrewman IS Craig received the British Empire Medal.

Thus was born Royal Navy helicopter search and rescue which, in 2013, celebrates its 60th anniversary of saving lives.

From these humble beginnings the Royal Navy swiftly introduced this first SAR helicopter to seven bases around the UK:

  • RNAS Anthorn / HMS Nuthatch near Carlisle in Cumbria
  • RNAS Brawdy / HMS Goldcrest in Pembrokeshire, Wales
  • RNAS Eglinton / HMS Gannet in Northern Ireland
  • RNAS Ford / HMS Peregrine near Littlehampton in Sussex
  • RNAS Lossiemouth / HMS Fulmar in north east Scotland near Elgin
  • RNAS Gosport / HMS Siskin in Hampshire
  • RNAS Culdrose / HMS Seahawk in Helston, Cornwall.

Although this first British-built Dragonfly helicopter would have further updates in its lifespan, the introduction of the Whirlwind HAR1/3 for SAR allowed greater range of 300nm, speed of 106mph and increased rescue capability, culminating in the Whirlwind HAR9 which could rescue eight people. The Dragonflies continued to provide SAR until replaced by the more capable Wessex HU Mk5 in 1964 with a range of 478nm, a top speed of 132mph and could rescue 16 people.

These aircraft were quickly used to save lives, most notably two SAS canoeists in difficulties off south Wales in March 1963 with the pilot Lieutenant RE Smith receiving an MBE for his actions. Interestingly a Wessex HAS1 was used by 706 Sqn to rescue the lighthouse keeper from the Longships lighthouse off Lands End in March 1968 with the pilot Lieutenant D Blythe receiving a MBE for his efforts.

Although the Wessex continued to provide SAR, the newly introduced Sea King HAS1 primarily intended for Anti Submarine duties was also used for longer range SAR due to its increased range of 598nm and greater endurance of 4 hours.

One aircraft from RNAS Culdrose was involved in the daring rescue of the crew from the Danish SS Merc Enterprise which had capsized in heavy seas south of Plymouth in January 1974. With waves of 50 feet and severe winds of 70mph, the crew managed to save many of the survivors with the pilots Lt Cdr DS Mallock and Lt AR Baker RAN (Royal Australian Navy exchange pilot) receiving the AFC and the rear crew POACMN DJD Fowles, DJ Jackson and LACMN AT Williams the AFM.

This potent force of Wessex and Sea King were directly involved in increasing number of rescues that by its increased capacity warranted the richly deserved gallantry awards for their efforts. These included:

  • Rescue of crew from oil rig ‘Orion’ aground off Guernsey in February 1978 for which Lt GJ Tilsley, Lt RG Davidson, Lt P Crudgington and Lt AJ Eagles received the AFC.
  • Rescue of crew from trawler Ben Asdale at Maenporth, Cornwall in December 1978 for which the Lt Cdr MJ Norman and Lt AJM Hogg received the AFC.
  • Rescue of crews during the Fastnet race in August 1979 for which Lt J Grayson received the AFC.
  • Rescue of the crew from a barge off Lymington which had overturned in October 1980 for which LACMN JP Spencer received the QGM.
  • Just over a year later, now A/POACMN JP Spencer received a bar to his QGM for his part in the rescue of the crew from the stricken Ecuadorian MV Benita off Portland Bill in December 1981.
  • Rescue of the crew from the yacht Oggie in distress 70nm south of Plymouth in January 1984, Lt SW Marlow received the QGM for his efforts.
  • Rescue of the celebrity Simon Le Bon and crew from the yachts Drum England and  Mr Cube in August 1985, POACMN L Slater received the GM.
  • Rescue of a young boy washed into the harbour at Porthleven, Cornwall in August 1987, LACMN I Penhaligon received the QGM.

The introduction the Sea King HU Mk5 for SAR in April 1988 was another step forward in allowing the now lighter aircraft following the removal of the ASW equipment to carry even more fuel for long range operations.

With much greater space for specialist rescue and medical equipment plus increased the passenger space, this aircraft is now the backbone of RN SAR fleet.

The following notable rescues have been conducted by 771 NAS based at RNAS Culdrose/HMS Seahawk and Gannet SAR flight based at RNAS Prestwick/HMS Gannet:

  • For the double rescue of crew from the Spanish trawler Ivan Antonio followed by the Korean MV Secil Japan at the infamous Hells Mouth near Gwithian, Cornwall in March 1989 CPOACMN JPR Grinney received the AFM.
  • For the extremely challenging rescue of crew from Pakistan MV Muree in October 1989, POACMN D Wallace and SW Wright received the GM.
  • For the rescue of the crew of the yacht Sine Seorra 30nm off Guernsey in August 1992, LACMN I Chambers received the AFM.
  • For the numerous rescues of people caught in the flooding at Boscastle, Cornwall in August 2004, Lt Cdr M Ford received the AFC and WOACMN R Yeomans received the QGM.
  • For the rescue of the crew from the MSC Napoli in the English Channel in January 2007, POACMN J O’Donnell received the QGM.
  • For the rescue of 3 men trapped on the notorious Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, Scotland in may 2007, Lt M Lanni received the AFC.
  • For the rescue of a man in Loch Long, Scotland in June 2007, LACMN K Regan received the QGM.
  • For the rescue the crew from the ferry Riverdance just off the beach at Blackpool in January 2008, Lt M Paulet received the AFC and LACMN K Regan received a Bar to his QGM.
  • For the rescue of a group of climbers caught in an avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor, Scotland in January 2009, Lt Cdr A Murray received the AFC.
  • For the rescue of an injured fisherman from the Spanish trawler Pesca des Verdes, in November 2009, CPOACMN D Rigg received the QGM.
  • For the rescue of the burning trawler Trevessa off Lands End in December 2009, POACMN D lacy received.

The Royal Navy is delighted to be able to celebrate the 60th anniversary of helicopter Search and rescue around the UK from its 7 different bases and by 10 different Squadrons since 1953. 

The RN currently provides two different Search and Rescue units, 771 Naval Air Squadron and Gannet SAR Flight based at RNAS Culdrose/HMS Seahawk and RNAS Prestwick/HMS Gannet respectively.


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