I have flown on over 200 helicopter rescues, but granted not all of them resulted in any kind of rescue. I often get asked which ones stand out and I have a few, but for very different reasons. However, they do all have something in common, namely a lack of closure.
Despite a rewarding career at the mercy of someone else’s misfortune, I can only recall a handful of Search and Rescue helicopter operations that resulted in some sort of closure. The alarm rings, you muster as a crew, you get to the casualty as quickly as you possibly can and deliver them in the most expeditious manner to an ambulance or hospital where they can be provided with much needed medical care . . . that’s it. Job done! In that way, it’s very transactional but then comes the doubt, particularly when the outcome is a negative one. Could I have got there quicker? Could I have flown better? Could we as a crew have done anything better? In RAF Search and Rescue the crew support was exceptional. We would debrief immediately after the sortie, regardless of time, and everything would be laid bare. That was our immediate ‘trauma management’. Often though, post debrief, doubts would linger, and I would struggle mentally to book end the shift and move on to the next one. Still to this day I mull over some of those rescues. The reason for that is I don’t know for sure that my actions made a difference. It’s not appropriate or tenable to call the hospital and ask the condition of a patient. So all you can do is hope that your actions, and those of your crew, contributed to a positive conclusion.
Sometimes, for me it feels like I’ve read 200 novels, but the only ones I’ve read from start to finish are the predictable ones where I figured out the plot halfway through. The grippy ones, with high speed chases and death defying feats of bravery (usually by the crewmen who are the real heroes of the story), the type of books you can’t put down are the ones I never got to finish . . . or in some cases, got to the last chapter and had to start another book!
That is, except one. In July 2012, we were called to rescue a young boy who had fallen 200ft at Stickle Tarn, a picturesque bowl in the Lake District. Injured children always invoked an extra level of readiness in the crew, as naturally there is an element of projection towards their own kin. On arrival it was clear that it was not going to be a straight-forward rescue. There was nowhere to land so we had to carry out a stretcher winch, and during the rescue the boy's father descended into a state of shock, becoming a casualty himself. The crew successfully got the father and son onboard the aircraft, and we took them to Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary as that was the closest specialist hospital for head injuries. Under normal circumstances that would have been it . . . job done! However, for the only time in my career the father did something that has helped bring clarity and perspective to my entire career in Search and Rescue. He got in touch with the Squadron a few days later, gave us an update on his son's condition and asked if he could come and visit the crew. Admittedly I was nervous, I hadn’t met a casualty in this way before and didn’t know what to expect. Was he coming with grievance and objection about the way the rescue was conducted? On the contrary, it turned out to be one of the most positive experiences of my career in its organic authenticity. He talked us through the day. His 12 year old son, his son's friend and his Dad had gone on a day trip to the Lake District. They had been climbing the ridge line on Stickle Tarn, a route they had successfully navigated before. Suddenly the son stumbled and banged his head knocking himself unconscious. The father talked of his horror as his son, whilst incapacitated, disappeared off the edge of the cliff. He then described how he was inches away from being able to grab him before he had to watch his son bounce down the cliff face like a rag doll until
he reached the bottom (in reality the fact that he was unconscious and his body was limp was probably what gave him a chance of surviving). He talked us through that helpless hour where he scrambled down the mountain side, with little regard for his own safety, to get to his son and wait for the rescue helicopter to come. He explained that he could hardly remember the helicopter journey and the handover to the medical staff in Newcastle. It was at this point that he pulled out 4 bottles of whisky, one for each crew member. He said that he didn’t know how else he could ever thank us for saving his son's life, and that he was now on the road to a full recovery.
When he left, I cried. He will never know what impact that one act of kindness towards me had on my mental wellbeing. That was it. That one special moment that I look back on in my Search and Rescue career where I had clarity and perspective that has stayed with me ever since. I knew the mental struggles I had experienced, the faces I still see of casualties in despair, the lives you knew you hadn’t been able to save and the searches that amounted to nothing had all been worth it . . . all expressed in a Dalwhinnie shaped bottle,
Aviation Action can help if you have experienced a traumatic event in your life. Professionally or personally we are here to help! Please get in touch if you need our support.