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Navy's SAR helicopter battles blizzard to rescue stricken women

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

A Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from HMS Gannet in Prestwick, Scotland, battled difficult conditions yesterday morning, Monday 5 December, to rescue a woman on the Isle of Arran.

The helicopter crew were also able to transfer a second, less seriously ill, patient from the Isle at the same time.

The four-strong duty crew, from the UK’s busiest helicopter search and rescue unit, was airborne at 0100hrs, routed via Glasgow to pick up a consultant and a nurse from the Emergency Medical Retrieval Team at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre.

What should have been a mere 20-minute hop to the city centre became a more complicated venture, with the crew forced to fly down to 200ft (61m) and follow the Clyde into Glasgow in order to avoid the blizzard and freezing conditions on higher ground. As a result, the journey took twice as long.

Leaving the Finnieston landing site at 0140hrs, again the team was faced with a hard slog into bands of low cloud, freezing conditions, driving snow and a 30-knot wind from the northwest on its way to Arran:

We were pretty much flying under and around bands of snow clouds throughout,” explained pilot and HMS Gannet’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Debdash Bhattacharya.

And this did make flying in the dark quite tricky. One minute we could be in relatively clear air and the next it was almost white out.

And, on approach into Arran, we encountered some turbulence from the mountains.

There were occasions where we were forced to fly by radar alone, as, even with our night vision goggles, we had lost all visual references. Our observer [navigator] Lieutenant Alex Stevenson controlled the aircraft’s position with reference to the radar during these periods, talking my co-pilot, Lieutenant Mark Wielopolski, and me into the safest area, and was essentially our eyes for parts of the journey.

We landed at the village of Knockenkelly near Whiting Bay, and were met by the Arran Coastguard team. The retrieval team was rushed to the hospital at Lamlash to stabilise the patient before getting her ready for transfer to Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock.

The Sea King team took the opportunity to fly back to Prestwick briefly to refuel, before being alerted to return to Arran by the Coastguard once the woman had been stabilised.

The two patients were successfully delivered to Crosshouse Hospital at around 0430 and both were kept in for observation:

Despite the difficulties we encountered, we still made good time,” continued Lieutenant Commander Bhattacharya.

Time is generally of the essence in medical rescues of this nature, both taking the time to stabilise patients for transfer by the retrieval teams and using the search and rescue helicopter capability in reducing transit times both for delivering medical crews to the casualty and then minimising return transfer times to hospital.

If you like, the helicopter allows us to reach areas others can’t. We can do it quickly and efficiently, which allows us to help save lives.

It was the second delivery of the night to the Kilmarnock infirmary for the duty crew, which had evacuated a man with a leg injury from the ship MV (Motor Vessel) North Sea Giant in the North Channel, between Northern Ireland and Stranraer.

Lifting from their Ayrshire base at 1815hrs on 4 December 2011, the team was again faced with dense snow clouds and strong wind, though, with the rough seas, this time there was also a pitching ship to contend with.

Hovering a matter of 10-15ft (3-5m) above the ship’s deck, Chief Petty Officer Jason Bibby, the team’s aircrewman and paramedic, was winched down to the casualty, where he was able to stabilise the patient before transferring him back into the helicopter.

The full crew was pilots Lieutenant Commander Debdash Bhattacharya and Lieutenant Mark Wielopolski, observer Lieutenant Alex Stevenson, and aircrewman Chief Petty Officer Jason Bibby.