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Unsung heroes

A day in the life of 22 Squadron 'C Flight'

Ian Jackson goes behind the scenes at RAF Valley. All pictures by the author unless stated otherwise.

First, let me explain my background. I serve as a Coastguard Watch Assistant (CWA) with HM Coastguard, based at the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre (MRSC), Liverpool. Because of my lifelong passion for aviation in general and military aviation in particular, since May last year I have taken on the role of (Station) Air Liaison Officer at Liverpool MRSC. As part of the ongoing training regime, all Coastguards, regardless of rank, are encouraged to get to know their local area of responsibility first-hand. In March 2002, along with a small number of colleagues, I was fortunate enough to visit the Sea King SAR flight at RAF Valley.

Isn't it easy as aviation enthusiasts to write off a passing 'paraffin budgie' as just another Sea King. But how many times do we spare any thought for the men and women within, as these old helos 'wok-wok' their way over our heads on the beach. These people probably gain more air-time (other than instructors) in the entire armed services - they can be called to risk their lives any time, 24/7, and other than the most elemental of briefings know precious little about what they are about to encounter. In my job I get to speak to these people from time to time. I know them as distant, indistinct but always friendly voices on the other end of a telephone or VHF radio. I've met some of them now, and along with the Lifeboat crews and Coastal Volunteers, I can assuredly refer to them as simply 'heroes'.

We arrived at RAF Valley in Anglesey on Monday 11 March at 10:40. The weather was exceptionally kind to us, a few passing light clouds in a deep blue spring sky. The drive to Valley was trouble-free and has become so much easier since the A55 dual carriageway has been continued right through to Holyhead - previously the only option had been the single carriageway A5. Approaching the station I was mightily heartened by the sight of a Canberra PR9 engaged in series of noisy touch 'n go's, the glory of this sight being somewhat lost on my colleagues - not an aviation fan amongst them! After a brief security check and issuing of passes we were escorted along the perimeter track to the SARTU/22 Squadron apron.

Real-life scrambleWe were courteously welcomed by Squadron Leader Lee Calderwood and his crews, who set the tone of the visit as one of informality combined with a determination that we should leave with as much knowledge and background as we could carry with us. The reasoning behind this - and indeed every visit we make as Coastguards within our area - is to better appreciate the perspective of the rescue units we task to any incident.

After a cup or two of coffee and brief introductions to the duty crews, we were given an RAF Search and Rescue power-point presentation, which highlighted some questions and issues. Primary amongst these is the age of the ARI 5995/2 search radar and the fact that the new Sea King HAR3A still does not have the Bendix Weather Radar and, more importantly, the aircraft are still waiting for a FLIR fit. (In the interest of politics I will refrain from barracking the reader with my opinions on these long overdue improvements, suffice to say that weather radar and FLIR would, in this writer's opinion, improve the efficiency of overwater SAR operations out of all proportion to the cost involved of installation). Having questioned the age and performance of the ARI radar fit, it was impressed upon us that the pilots welcomed the auto hover facility afforded by the 'dash 2' update in the HAR3A as a quantum leap after years of manual/instrument hovering.

After the Q & A session, which covered subjects as diverse as reaction times in icy-conditions to the protocols of refuelling the aircraft at Gas Production Platforms, we were escorted outside into the bright March sunshine to walk around and through the aircraft. Accompanying us for this part of out tour was Lee Calderwood's winchman.

It is difficult to describe the amount and diversity of rescue and life saving/maintaining equipment carried in these aircraft - no amount of cabin space, no matter how limited, is wasted. If the reader wishes to read-up in depth on the levels and specifics of the equipment carried I would recommend that you pay a visit to 22 Squadron's website. Before I spoke to Lee and his winchman I must admit to some degree of ignorance and complacency to their role, especially in respect to overwater night time operations. A few weeks prior to our visit we had called upon RAF Valley for a helo to airlift a sick passenger from a ferry inbound to Liverpool from Ireland. It was in the early hours of the morning and although there were relatively light winds, there was no horizon visible so Lee (as chance would have it, it was his crew who was on-duty that night and he vividly recalled the incident) flew the entire mission on instruments, without looking out of the cockpit once.

We had called the national Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCC) at RAF Kinloss around 01:20, advising them that we might have a casevac situation on a ferry inbound to Liverpool from Ireland and could they give the Valley SAR flight the 'heads-up' just in case. I will refrain from boring the reader with our Coastguard procedure at this point, suffice to say the worse case scenario was realised and under direction of a duty doctor we advised the captain of the ferry that we would arrange for his sick passenger to be airlifted to hospital.

Lift-offIn the meantime, the always hard-working and efficient groundcrew of 'Rescue 122' had prepared the aircraft, connected up the generator and brought the engines 'on-line'. After receiving our 'scramble' call via RCC the crew made brief notes of the nature of the job, the position of the ferry, communication frequencies with the Coastguard and were jogging to the aircraft.

The aircraft (now referred to as 'R122') lifted off just five minutes after the 'scramble' call and a little over fifteen minutes since the first 'heads-up' call. Calderwood explained to me that from just two miles out of Valley until just two miles to run to the ferry he flew at around fifteen hundred feet on instruments alone. There was no visible horizon due to low cloud; fortunately the winds were relatively light at fifteen to twenty knots from the northwest, a headwind that slowed the Sea King's stately ninety-knot airspeed by some five knots.

The co-pilot only spoke to the Coastguard on two or three occasions to get an update on the position, course and speed of the ferry and the state of the casualty. Once in VHF range of the ferry R122 spoke to the ship directly confirming the helo deck was ready to receive and that the casualty's condition had not deteriorated in any way. As R122 arrived over the ferry, the winchman guided the pilot into position over the helo deck; this was the first time, according to Lee, that he allowed himself a look outside the aircraft.

For the crew of R122 this was nothing more than a bread & butter casevac, and to be honest in our warm and cosy Operations Room in Liverpool, we thought of it as routine also. It is not until one talks face-to-face with these people who put their lives on the line every time they fly, that one truly realises the risks that they take to preserve a human life. Would I call them heroes? - Damn right I would!

Back to our tour of the aircraft. Having had a very detailed and incisive talk on the rescue equipment carried, we swapped places with our colleagues who had just had the mysteries of the Sea King's flight deck explained to them. I took the opportunity (with no small amount of schoolboy excitement) to almost dive into the pilot's seat. As I placed my hands almost reverentially on the Cyclic and Collective Pitch controls, Lee gave me a knowing look - he'd guessed this particular Coastguard didn't need too much instruction in the vagaries of helicopter flying.

Calderwood was not five minutes into his verbal tour of the flight deck when a klaxon sounded across the pan. I looked up to see a team of four NCOs headed by Sergeant Allan whom we'd all been introduced to earlier, converging on 'our' aircraft. He pushed his head inside and announced simply "Snowdon, broken leg, needs a lift to Bangor, the Mountain Rescue can't bring him down, Sir!"

And that was it. We were politely bundled out of the aircraft and twelve minutes later (yes I did time it!), the helicopter was airborne. The two aircraft of 'C Flight' are maintained at instant (15 minute) and back-up (45 minute) readiness.

The crew returned in just over an hour. In the meantime, we'd been treated to lunch in the portacabin that doubles as the mess until more permanent accommodation is established. Sharing tables with Allan and his colleagues were a number of officers from 19(R) Squadron who share that side of the airfield. These pilots obviously realised that the best way to get well fed in the RAF is to eat at the Sergeants mess!

Once Squadron Leader Calderwood and his crew had debriefed, they bid us a genuinely friendly farewell, promising to 'drop-in' to Liverpool more frequently. We left Valley wiser and hopefully more appreciative of our colleagues at the 'sharp-end' of Search and Rescue. As we rejoined the A55 we watched 'Rescue 122' departing over water to… well who can say.

So, next time you see the Sea King (RN or RAF), and their crews at Fairford, Leuchars or Waddington shows, don't just pass them by. Talk with them, listen to them….say thank you. Because next summer it may be you or your children that they're trying to rescue.


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