News story

Five people rescued in one day by Navy team

The series of call-outs, which were to last almost nine hours in total, began to unfold at around 1700hrs on Tuesday 31 May 2011, when the crew…

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The series of call-outs, which were to last almost nine hours in total, began to unfold at around 1700hrs on Tuesday 31 May 2011, when the crew was scrambled to rescue an injured man on Ben Nevis.

Flying into windy, turbulent conditions, the four-strong Royal Navy team from HMS Gannet at Prestwick in Ayrshire located the casualty some 4,200ft (1.28km) up on Carn Mor Dearg, the north face ridge approach to the summit.

The climber was part of a group of four, and had suffered a shoulder injury. The pilot on the mission, Major Mike Devereux, Royal Marines (RM), said:

With no possibility of landing to retrieve the casualty due to the terrain, it became clear we were going to have to go with a winch recovery, and this was really quite tricky.

There was a significant amount of turbulence on the Ben at that height, and the cloud was also closing in fast. In fact, at one stage, there was no visibility on the left-hand-side of the helicopter. We also had to reduce our fuel load to achieve the required stability and manoeuvrability.

We lowered Corporal Andy Firth RM on the winch and he was able to make the casualty comfortable before winching back into the helicopter.

Before this call was even complete, the crew was already receiving information of a second tasking, to The Hidden or Lost Valley in Glencoe - a popular route for walkers to Munro Bidean nam Bian.

After dropping the casualty from Ben Nevis at the mountain rescue base for onward transport to medical care, the Navy helicopter was immediately en route to Glencoe - probably for their most straight forward job of the day.

This time the call was to a casualty with an injured ankle and the team was able to land nearby and recover her quickly to the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) base.

By now, the helicopter was running low on fuel and headed to Corpach, near Fort William, to replenish the tanks.

And it was here that they received the next shout, back to Glencoe, to rescue a cragfast climber on Aonach Eagach.

Although uninjured, the climber was stuck 2,000ft (610m) up on an exposed area of the mountain, along with a member of Glencoe MRT - impossible to go up or down the slope. Major Devereux said:

It wasn’t quite as turbulent as the Nevis rescue but it was still very exposed and we really wanted to get in and out of there as quickly as we could.

We were aware that cloud could close in at any time. And this was rather a hair-raising one for our aircrewman, Andy, who was lowered down on the winchline to recover the casualty and the MRT member.

Due to the terrain, it involved 150ft [46m] of winch cable below the helicopter, which was being buffeted by the wind, and above a sheer 2,000-foot [610m] drop. Not for the faint-hearted.

Andy did a really good job,” he continued, “got both the people on board, and we were then able to transfer them to safety at the bottom of the mountain. And then we were finally able to return to base at Prestwick.

Not for long, though, as the next tasking came through around 20 minutes after they landed, directing the team up to Broadford on the Isle of Skye.

During the team’s very first rescue of the day, the helicopter had also been put on standby for an unfolding major incident in the Cuillins. In the event, however, they were not required and continued on with the rest of the afternoon and evening’s taskings.

But this final call of the day, which came through at 2200hrs, was to transfer two medical specialists and one casualty from Skye to Glasgow for treatment. The casualty had been injured in the Cuillins incident earlier in the day, which claimed the life of one climber and left others injured (see Related News):

Broadford is some 100 miles [160km] north of Gannet,” continued Major Devereux. “But the quickest way is to fly across water and it was extremely challenging last night. By this stage, daylight had almost gone and there was a lot of low cloud, rain and turbulence.

It was tricky piloting conditions, and we were juggling the safety of the aircraft and team with the need to get to Broadford as quickly as possible to pick up the casualty.

The helicopter landed on Skye at 2305hrs and was only on the ground a short while before getting airborne again with the casualty and two medical experts for the flight back to Glasgow, landing at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre at around 0100hrs.

At around 0215hrs, after a brief wait in Glasgow, a tired HMS Gannet team finally landed back at base, after a gruelling nine-hour stint.

The full duty crew consisted of pilots Captain Michael ‘Jack’ Frost RM and Major Mike Devereux RM, observer Lieutenant Phil Gamble, and winchman and medical responder Corporal Andy Firth RM.

Published 2 June 2011