First Search and Rescue (SAR) Mission

Published in Occupation, Personal History

As a young Air Corps pilot in August 1972, I was on Search and Rescue standby duty with my two Alouette 111 helicopter crew at our base in Baldonnel, near Dublin. It was a nice summer’s day, I recall, and we were looking forward to watching the All- Ireland Semi Final on TV later that afternoon. However, this was not how it turned out , as Air Corps Operations tasked us with a mission to go to the aid of two French sailors who were reported overboard from their trawler near Inishshark Island, off Cleggan, Co. Galway. Thus began my first ever Search and Rescue mission.

Every helicopter pilot’s first Search and Rescue Mission – in particular one involving the saving of human life at sea or on land – is a memorable event, most especially of course for the rescued person, but also for the aircrew. And so it was for me on that mercy flight to Inishshark Island, over thirty-eight years ago.

Without delay we became airborne and routed directly to Clifden, where we refuelled the helicopter from 45-gallon drums, located in the old handball alley at the edge of the town. We were not overly optimistic of our chances of rescuing those poor sailors, as over two hours had elapsed since our initial callout from Baldonnel. However, as luck would have it, we were greeted with a remarkable sight on our arrival on the western side of Inishshark. There were innumerable little boats milling around near the islands cliffs, with a large steel hulled French trawler moored further out to sea. To our amazement, we spotted the two sailors stranded on top of a large rock near the cliff face, surrounded by water. We could not figure out how they got there, but they were waving wildly at us! We could see that the sea was far too choppy for any of the smaller boats to come close to the rock and effect a rescue, which is why the sailors had not been picked up before our arrival.

We knew that our normal rescue circuit would not be possible due to proximity of the cliffs to the rock and the strong westerly breeze. So, we completed our approach to just west of the rock and air taxied backwards and hovered over the rock and sailors. The winch operator and winch man successfully winched the first rather large sailor to the cabin door. So far, so good……… until he entered the helicopter’s small cabin, that is! He was very excited and, in his delight at being rescued, he gave me a friendly thump on my left arm. Like I said, he was a big man, and this friendly gesture on his part caused the helicopter power lever in my left hand to drop suddenly, as did our helicopter! I barely recovered the helicopter only feet above the head of the second sailor, so I told the aircrew in no uncertain terms to calm the rescued man in any way they saw fit! He had unwittingly become a threat to our own safety. Thankfully, he calmed down and we carried out the second uplift on his companion. It was clear to us that both men, although wet and exhausted, were otherwise physically ok. So, we winched them back down onto their trawler, with the big sailor still wanting to show his gratitude but this time with a more restrained kiss, Gallic style. As the winchman came back on board from the second drop I noticed that he was carrying a box of Ballintines whiskey, The big excitable sailor hadn’t let him go empty-handed!. We immediately forgave his earlier faux pas! There were smiles all round as we headed back to base with our first mission successfully accomplished. Two souls saved.

But our memorable day was not over yet . Shortly after our return to Baldonnel we received another tasking from Air Corps Operations, this time it was to carry out an Air Ambulance mission, flying an injured patient from Castlebar Hospital to the Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoire. This was a more straightforward mission, but what a way to end a day that started so quietly.
It was good to see all our collective training paying off so handsomely. But, after that first memorable rescue mission off Inishshark, henceforth I kept a wary eye on the behaviour of any survivors winched on board my helicopter.

Comdt Frank Russell is an ex Air Corps SAR pilot and retired Inspector of Air Accidents.

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