On a glorious March morning, Amanda McCormack, Claire Hickson and I visited the 22 Squadron A Search and Rescue helicopters at RMB Chivenor.
It was 11am on Monday, March 10 and we had just entered onto the camp at Chivenor under the watchful eye of an armed solider and a security guard. We were visitors and therefore had to report to the Guardroom and have our details taken and our pictures taken. The result was nothing to complain about, however, as we each had a red pass clipped to our clothing with our details and pictures on! The security guard who took my details and pictures caused laughter among some soldiers in the Guardroom as he accidentally told me to stand with my feet on the ceiling! a female solider said to me, humorously "make sure you stand with your feet on the roof next time mate."
We then drove to the other end of the camp where the squadron is located. We stood at the door of the one floor building where the SAR crew are based and were greeted by Flt Lt John Rowe - visits officer. He led us into the kitchen area where the crew manager, and several crew members were sat. John then took us through to the operations room where operations manager Danny was sat keeping an eye on phones and computer screens. If a call comes in, Danny is the one that picks it up and dispatches the flight crew. Also in the operations room were the two pilots that had just began their 24 hour shift. These pilots were also experienced instructors, John explained. It was fascinating to see how old fashioned, but at the same so effective, the equipment was that the crew use. A simple string and weight on a map tells the crew how many miles it is to a location!
We then headed out to the helicopter so that the pilots could brief for the training flight they were about to head out on. We took pictures with John outside the aircraft and then went up some steps into the helicopter!
Inside, the helicopter is very padded and very long. Firstly, Amanda and I sat in the cockpit whilst an auditorium of instruments and controls surrounded us. Whereas nowadays helicopters use more computer based technology, the Sea Kings - which came to Chivenor in 1995 - operate on very old controlling but it does the job, and that's all the crew need. In John Rowe's words: "Anyone could fly a helicopter. It's like operating a washing machine! Even an old granny could fly this [helicopter]!"
John told us that the helicopter travels at around 170 knots which equates to just under 200mph. The aircraft can reach a maximum height of 10,000 feet however most of the Sea King's work is done below 3,000 feet. John said that the search and rescue missions are conducted below 1,000 feet most of the time and the helicopter uses its advantage of being able to fly low. The reason that the helicopters are officially at Chivenor is to provide a rescue service for marines out at sea, however John explained that this only accounts for 1% of what the helicopter does - 99% of its work is emergency assistance and search and rescue operations.
The flying range of the helicopter stretches from France to the north of England to the mid-atlantic. Most of the work they do centers around cliffs and beaches and John said that it is surprisingly common how many rescues the service attend to which involve dogs falling off cliffs! John had recently been on a rescue where him and and the crew on shift had to transfer a patient from North Devon District Hospital to a specialist hospital in Liverpool.
As well as the cockpit, John let Claire sit in the radar operators hut in the helicopter and operate the radar, camera and infra-red camera located beneath the aircraft. We then briefly saw where the winch man is located in the back of the helicopter and discovered that the winch man is also the on board paramedic! John explained that the crew's aim is ti stabilize their patient and get them to hospital, where necessary, as efficiently as possible.
The crew's target time of getting up in the air when called out is 15 minutes but they are usually up in the air within 8 minutes of the call coming in. "If the rescue was at Croyde [for example] the captain would just go straight away and the helicopter would be gone within 4 minutes" said John.
The paramedic then came on board, as did the rest of the crew, just as we got off the helicopter and so we went back into the operations room as John said it would be another 10 minutes yet before the helicopter lifted.
We saw how the operator has several different types of phones on his live desk. The 'scramble phone' is the phone where a call comes in. Calls come in from the national operations centre in Kirklos in Scotland and rescues are then fed through from there to bases. Ambulance, police and coastguard control centres can also call directly for the helicopter if they crucially need it.
We then headed back out onto the airfield as the rotors were at full pelt and the crew were about to take off. There was a wire connected to the bottom of the aircraft, attached to an engineer with headphones on. I asked John what this was and he said the captain was talking to the engineer as he was checking his instruments. John said that when the captain was ready, the engineers would disconnect the chord, take the wheel bases off and the helicopter would lift. This then happened and the helicopter lifted about 10m off the floor and hovered. At this point, whilst he was giving us a running commentary of what the pilots were doing, John said that the pilots were making final checks in the cockpit and they would lift up an into forward flight when they were ready. About a minute later, so they did and away the helicopter flew!
John had just come off his 24 hour shift at 10am the morning we visited and as we headed back into the operations room, he showed us the whole timetable for March of shifts for each member of the crew at 22 Squadron A. John had another shift on Tuesday 11 March, however this was cancelled because a high rank officer was visiting the base and John had to meet him. John's next shifts, therefore, were on the 16th, 18th and 20th March. He said that he had about 7 shifts a month but that the fatigue and concentration required for the job is so much that it is very demanding. It is said that 1 flight hour is 3 office hours. The SAR team at Chivenor consists in total of about 70 people. About 30 of these are crew, about 40 are engineers and then there are a further few positions in the operations room etc.
Amanda, Claire and I were all astonished by the overwhelming levels of happiness and enjoyment in the team. John just loves his job - for him, its not about grudging to work and earning a wage, it's the sheer enjoyment of what he does that drives him to the base for a 24 hour shift. "In the Summer, flying over the beaches and landing on the beaches here in North Devon - no one complains, they just wave and love what we do - it's just such a great job." John said. The crew have 4 available training flight hours a day and there's never a conversation about cost or money in the crew. It's all about saving people's lives and keeping everyone safe.
John spoke of his most memorable rescue - which was also his first rescue - which was 3 people stuck half way up a cliff in Bude. What was funny about it, though, was that one of these was on crutches! "Why would you go up a cliff on crutches?" John said!
The crew also love having the whole airfield to themselves because no other airforce unit on the base is active now. Even the runway is closed to all planes apart from gliders and one off flights that may occasionally come into Chivenor. In fact, on the day we visited, there were two military helicopters flying about the base which were stationed there for 3 days on a training mission. There was also a plane due to arrive later on in the day so we caught the Chivenor airfield on a fairly busy day! However, usually it is just the helicopter flying from the base and the crew really enjoy having so much space!
As for when SAR 22 Squadron A closes, "some of the crew have applied for positions at St Athan in Wales (where the new helicopter service will be based from 2015), however I plan to work down in Cornwall and train to be an instructor pilot (like the ones that were on shift at the time)." John said.
The crew are looking forward to a very busy Summer of rescues and events and love nothing more than being right at the heart of North Devon's community. Our visit to the base, beneath bright blue skies and sunshine, was absolutely fantastic and we thank Flt Lt John Rowe and the whole of the team at the Chivenor SAR helicopters for making our visit such a great memorable experience.
Ewan Somerville 15/3/14
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