This is a story of one of the more important decisions I ever made although at the time it just seemed like a good idea. In 1978, I was awarded my Royal Naval pilot’s wings and went on to train on the Sea King Mark One anti-submarine helicopter. After conversion, I was offered the option to go to 824 Squadron and fly off the old Ark Royal on her last commission or 814 Squadron off HMS Hermes. I chose 814, not the least because I knew they had an American deployment scheduled for the following year. Had I gone to 824, I would have been able to see the Phantoms and Buccaneers strut their stuff for the last time but 814 gave me something else.
We were the first squadron to be equipped with the Jezebel passive sonar system that used sonobouys, as well as having an active dipping sonar. So the first major exercise I was involved in that summer was – a Commando assault exercise at Lulworth cove. The Sea King was the only aircraft then capable of lifting a 105 MM howitzer although on more than one occasion I wondered who was flying who, especially when the gun started to sway. In August when transiting the Bristol Channel we received an audio warning of a problem along with the gauge readings, as our main gearbox dumped oil all over the poor Observer in the back. We had all the ship’s mail with us but managed to keep it dry as we paddled away in our dinghies. That summer I was also lucky enough to do some mountain flying in Scotland before flying home via Loch Ness, where we used the sonar to try to find Nessie with no success unfortunately. On top of this I flew the full suite of normal operations, day and night; deck landings, ship approaches, winching, ASW passive and active, Helicopter In Flight Refuelling (HIFR), cross deck with other ships. But then things got really interesting.
That autumn, 814 were due to do another Commando exercise in the Arctic off Norway but a plea had come in from Culdrose for three crews to volunteer for Search and Rescue cover at home over Christmas and the New Year. The deal was, we took early leave and then had to be on duty over the whole Christmas and New Year period. As I lived at Culdrose with my wife, this seemed a good deal; early leave and then flying over Christmas where I was going to be anyway.
The period started off as a complete anti-climax. We briefed and did some training flights and waited for the calls to come in. They didn’t. Christmas came and went and we were all getting a little frustrated.
With three crews, we had one day on duty, one on standby and one day off. So it was with some relief, I went to bed at midnight on the night of the 31st December 1978 as the non-duty crew. The weather was bloody awful, blowing a gale and starting to snow. I distinctly remember lying in bed listening to the wind blasting against the bedroom windows and being thankful we wouldn’t be needed. That was just before my recall bleeper went off. I rushed to the phone and rang the air station to be told to get my ass into the squadron, because we were needed.
The duty crew had been called out on a shout towards Lands End and on the way back all power to the Air Station had failed and the approach radar stopped working. Seeing a gap in the clouds the aircraft managed a landing in a cabbage patch near Marizion. The standby crew had also got stranded somewhere else, for the life of me I can’t remember why, but that just left us. It didn’t end there. The Sea King fleet was undergoing an upgrade to Mark Two status which was being done in stages. The only serviceable aircraft left was a ‘Mark One and Half’. It had some of the Mark Two modifications but not the important one of heated anti-icing mats in front of the engine intakes and by now it was snowing really hard.
Tony Hogg the First pilot briefed me to go out and start up the aircraft while he and the aircraft captain, our Observer, Mike Norman, got the brief. Engaging rotors was interesting to say the least as the wind was well over forty knots by then. Tony and Mike plus our aircrewman, Chris Folland and a medic from Sick bay were soon on board and we waited for the go ahead. While we were waiting Tony explained the situation. A trawler, called the Ben Asdale, was on the rocks near the village of Maenporth and the Coast Guard needed help. We later got the whole story. She was discharging her catch into a Russian Factory ship in Falmouth bay and had got a rope round her rudder as she tried to disengage. Before she could re-secure, her remaining rope parted and she was adrift with no steering. The appalling weather was being caused by a small low pressure system travelling fast up a cold front in the channel and apart from the strong winds, now gusting to Force Ten and snow, the wind had gone round to the east. Falmouth bay offered no shelter at all in these conditions. The captain tried to drop an anchor but it didn’t hold and the ship crashed into the rocks at Newporth Head by the little town of Maenporth. Three crew immediately abandoned her and were fished out of the surf by brave locals but just as the Coast Guard attached a Breeches Buoy to her, she lurched onto her side, trapping all the rescue gear.
All we knew at the time was that the control tower suddenly gave us authorisation to go. Apparently the Commanding Officer of Culdrose was loath to let us launch but once the Coast Guard said there was nothing more they could do, he knew he had no choice. Because of our lack of anti-icing systems we had to fly the wrong way to the nearest coast to the west and then fly low level over the sea, south around the Lizard, before being able to turn north towards Maenporth. With the wind blowing over forty knots onto the cliffs, there was no way we could approach from seaward. We flew downwind low over the cliffs, saw the lights of the Coast Guard and turned hard into wind before we lost sight of them. With no other choice we flew past the cliffs and went into the hover over the sea using a technique called ‘manual dipping’ normally reserved for anti-submarine operations but which got us down quickly. When established safely in the hover, we took stock. The cliffs and the ship were behind us somewhere but we couldn’t see them. At this point the Coast Guard came on the radio and by using their guidance we were slowly able to fly backwards towards the cliffs. The Sea King has a Doppler low ground speed indicator and without this we wouldn’t have been able to control the aircraft but slowly we inched backwards until the Observer could see the wreck and give a more accurate con into position. The thing he couldn’t see, because they were on the other side of the aircraft were the cliffs but I could and they weren’t far away at all. The wreck was almost continually being covered in breaking waves and it was quickly assessed as too dangerous to put someone down on the winch, so we lowered the horse collar and luckily the casualties were able to get into it one by one. Mike Norman conned the aircraft and he and Chris Folland operated the winch and brought the casualties on board where our medic looked after them. My job was simpler, keep an eye on all the gauges and those cliffs. In fact I could barely see the wreck as I was in the left hand seat and it was directly below us. One of the Coast Guards later told me that he was sure we had cut some grass at one stage and our tail rotor nearly parted their hair. The problem was that to be at a height to safely operate the winch we were at the same height as the top of the cliffs. On more than one occasion I shouted ‘Right Right’ in what was probably a concerned tone to say the least. Bloody good flying by Tony though. But nothing is ever that simple and on lift five the winch wire went slack for a second and then caught around a fibre glass cover just to the rear of the cabin door which protected some the torpedo mounting equipment. Suddenly we had a man on the wire, a jammed winch and no way of getting him up. With no other choice, we had to fly forward with the survivor dangling below us and hover over open sea. We then descended and dunked him in, to take the weight off the wire and free it before he could be safely brought up. We saw him in Sick Bay later and apologised.
So there we were, back at square one and for the second time that evening, having to fly backwards into the cliffs. By now the snow was incredibly thick. Tony was effectively on instruments and relying on the con from the Coast Guard, Mike and me. We made it into position and safely got the last three guys up. With sighs of relief we transitioned forwards. Time to go home but there was blizzard blowing, low cloud and no approach radar from the air station. Mike could use the aircraft’s radar and Doppler navigation system to a degree to help us find home but at this point his intercom failed having been given a sound drenching for the last hour and half. He was forced to write directions down on bits of paper and get them handed forward to us. So at low level we literally crept towards where we hoped RNAS Culdrose was. Suddenly, we caught a glimpse of lights below us and Tony threw the aircraft down towards them. It was another brilliant bit of flying and we landed on the taxiway near the squadron and taxied in.
The first thing Mike Norman said as we made it out of the weather into the calm and warm of the squadron line shack was ‘Well that wasn’t much of a rescue.’ I think we were all embarrassed by the winch jamming and still high on adrenalin. It was only later that we all realised what we had achieved. Only three people died, two crew of the trawler and one of the engineers who had come over from the Russian ship. Three had been pulled out of the sea and we got the other eight. My job had been relatively simple but Tony’s flying skills had been amazing, as had been the work of the rear seat guys. In the end Tony and Mike were awarded Air Force Crosses and the rest of us were given Queen’s Commendations. We even made a centre page spread in the Sunday Express and other papers but that was much later. It took us two hours just to get the aircraft into the safety of the hangar. We then went to sick bay to check on the survivors. Later the next day, when we were actually the duty crew, we went off to recover the other aircraft from its cabbage patch.
It wasn’t long before we were called out again and in another severe gale, to look for the crew of a capsized ore carrier in the middle of the Channel. When we launched it had a fifteen degree list, by the time we arrived on scene it had sunk. In some ways this was worse than the Ben Asdale, partly because the weather was even worse if that was possible but more importantly because only one survivor was recovered by the other aircraft that went with us. Seventeen people died that night. My log books shows we were airborne for almost eight solid hours, I certainly remember the numb bum when I got out! We also winched up four survivors from a yacht that had sunk and been recovered by a merchantman and finally we went to southern Ireland where a tanker had blown up alongside in Bantry Bay. In that tragic case there was little we could do except ferry some of the bodies to the hospital in Cork before heading home. What had started out almost too quiet had become almost too busy.
I left 814 in July 1980 to convert to the Lynx. I did actually managed two deployments to the States in HMS Hermes and then HMS Bulwark which were as much fun as I had hoped but as far as the flying went, it was never as exciting as those first six months.
About Larry Jeram-Croft
He retired from the Navy as a Commander in 2000. He worked in industry for a while but now spends most of his time writing novels about the Fleet Air Arm and the modern Royal Navy. His first book ‘Sea Skimmer’ is about the Falklands War and partly based on his own experiences as the Lynx pilot in HMS Andromeda. The other three books cover various military episodes as they occurred including Arctic Operations in the Cold War, Anti-Drug smuggling in the Caribbean and the evacuation of Beirut. A new novel is due out this summer about the Tanker War in the Gulf prior to the first Gulf War. More will follow. All are available from Amazon as Kindles or Paperbacks.