THE FINAL DUTY
After over 40 years of providing Search and Rescue' operations from RNAS Culdrose, the four duty crew of 771 Naval Air Squadron have started their last 24 hour shift.
Over the years, personnel from 771 Naval Air Squadron have saved countless lives, whilst risking their own, in some of the most hazardous conditions imaginable. It is estimated that they have carried out over 9000 rescues and saved over 15,000 lives since 1974.
With that in mind, today, on their last full day of operation, it is business as usual for the four man crew - Commanding Officer Lt Cdr Richard Calhaem, Lt Cdr Andrew 'Tank' Murray, Lt Jonathan 'Stretch' Hounsome and WO Andy Penrose. The experienced team have many flying hours between them; indeed three of them have carried out almost 400 rescues each. With a cabinet full of honours and awards, the four individuals have taken part in some major rescues from the Spanish Trawler Presca Verdes Tres in 2008, Boscastle in 2004, FV Le Sillon in 2014 and the Panamera in 2013.
‘Search and Rescue’ will continue for the Royal Navy - it is essential to flying operations at sea - but from January 1st 2016, the baton of responsibility for the provision of UK civilian search and rescue will be handed to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency contractor Bristow Helicopters, based at Newquay airport.
Before handing over to the MCA and Bristow, 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. The weather is not looking great, so let’s see what the next 24 hours bring!”
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 771 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!”
WO Andy Penrose, the winchman on the final crew and one of the longest serving members of the squadron said: “When you get the call, you don’t really know what you are going to find at the scene. I have many memories of a whole host of jobs, some have extremely happy endings and some unfortunately do not. Each and every one has been unique in its own right. The ones which stick in your mind are the big jobs like Boscastle, but also those in the dead of night with massive sea states. Language has often been a problem too - once we got scrambled to a job where a man had got a fish hook stuck in his eye, but when we got to his fishing vessel, he had lost an arm!”
Andy added: “It has been the most rewarding and satisfying job I could ever have hoped to fulfil - I have been privileged to serve at 771 in every rank from Leading Hand to Warrant Officer. I am filled with sadness that my 771 days are all but finished, however, I have treasured memories of a job well done and have had some of the most challenging yet rewarding scenarios I could have ever have hoped to experience. I have every faith in my Bristow colleagues at Newquay, most of whom I know as previous 771 Squadron personnel. I look forward to my own personal challenge as I move onto my next unit as a Merlin Aircrewman and as a Merlin Sqn Warrant Officer.”
771's team of engineers have also been working hard as usual to ensure that the squadron's Sea King helicopters are ready to fly. Petty Officer Martin Greenwood has been doing 12 hour watches every day since Christmas Day. He said: “We have been really busy, with engine changes and fixing avionic faults. This is the best squadron that I have ever worked on. The atmosphere is brilliant – everyone works together as a team.”
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, the Squadron operates within a 200 nautical mile radius of Culdrose. They have carried out over 200 rescues every 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.