Bristow search and rescue (SAR) Pilot James Bullock and Winchman Paramedic Alan Speed, who are now based at Bristow’s SAR operations at Humberside and Inverness respectively, were recognized with the 2016 Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award. The award recognizes individuals and crews for acts of outstanding courage or devotion to duty in the course of land or sea search and rescue operations.
Bullock and Speed were nominated for the award as crew members of HMS Gannet SAR Flight R177. The job marked James Bullock’s 400th SAR tasking. [EDITOR NOTE – this means that the pair were NOT Bristow employees at the time of the event, as implied by the press release – they were still employees of the Royal Navy as the event was prior to Bristow taking over the SAR role at Prestwick, albeit by two days]
The nomination is as follows:
On 30 December 2015, Rescue 177 (R177), the duty Search and Rescue aircraft at HMS Gannet, was under the command of Lt Richard Lightfoot and his crew comprised of Lt Cdr Lanni AFC (P1/Handling Pilot), Lt Bullock (P2) and POACMN Speed (Aircrewman). South Ayrshire was suffering significant rainfall and continued gale force winds during the passage of ‘Storm Frank’. R177 had already conducted three rescues during their duty period when Lt Lightfoot received tasking from the ARCC to proceed to Dailly, South Ayrshire to attend a vehicle stuck in floodwater that was to test their mettle as a SAR crew.
Once on scene, this transpired to be a single-deck bus stuck in a heavily flooded river, listing and 75% submerged with water already at the windows’ midpoint. Precariously positioned, the bus was only just held from being completely lost by a submerged wall. All other attempts by attending rescue services had failed and the only available boat was a Fire Rescue Service Rib that had been damaged beyond use and now lay roped to the bus, its crew inside the bus. The bus itself was also under significant tree cover, preventing easy access. Lt Lightfoot assessed the scene and saw that with no other viable form of rescue, and the water continuing to flood, the bus and its passengers were likely to be lost to the torrent and the 60kts winds.
His initial plan was to use a hi-line to extract the casualties as safely as possible, however this was soon impossible due to the extensive overhang of the trees preventing the hi-line being passed. With the aircrewman’s consent, Lt Lightfoot now planned to put the aircraft itself into the branches of the trees, enabling the aircrewman to be lowered directly through the branches using the aircrewman’s own weight to force a way through. Lt Cdr Lanni had to position the aircraft with the starboard sponson of the aircraft now in the treeline constantly challenged by gale force winds and significant turbulence but the man was successfully placed into the bus.
Inside the bus, the scene was grim, water halfway up the cabin and the passengers retreated to the highest seats; after two hours, they were cold and scared. POACMN Speed tactfully assessed the priority for evacuation and set up the hi-line for recovery. He intelligently decided to use an adult male first in order to prove the extraction. He and the casualty met with considerable swing of the winch but nonetheless he had proved its viability. In contact with the aircrewman, Lt Lightfoot’s plan was to extract casualties one by one, under his supervision and conducting the winching. Lt Cdr Lanni continued to hover within inches of the treeline’s branches and with such a small aperture of escape for the winchman and casualties, a careful, constant and exact conn of the aircraft was required, and given, by Lt Lightfoot.
On the second deployment, the current caught POACMN Speed, sweeping him under the tethered Rib, trapping him under water. Lt Lightfoot immediately spotted this, raising the winch and bringing the aircrewman back to the surface saving his life with his quick actions. POACMN Speed caught his breath, signalled that he was OK and to continue. What followed was nine further lifts, nine pinpoint re-iterations of the hovering required to rescue the casualties for 90 minutes in an unrelenting storm, including two rescues of children using the child’s rescue valise until all casualties were clear.
Lt Lightfoot decided that with the potential of total loss of the bus still present, there would be no opportunity to stop. In consultation with his crew, he decided to take the aircraft to its limit of endurance, accepting the fuel low captions would illuminate and that the aircraft would have to shut down after with not enough fuel to continue flying. With forethought, R177 alerted the ARCC to deploy Gannet’s fuel bowser by road to refuel on completion. Ending the rescue with 10 casualties on board and every seat full, they landed in darkness. POACMN Speed was cold, soaked and had suffered a near drowning but never gave up or asked for time to recover. The crew were marshalled to keep going by Lt Lightfoot’s continued direction. Now, every casualty was individually handed over by the winchman to the medical services.
Finally, the crew lifted to locate, recce and land at an optimal area to refuel the aircraft in situ and returned it to alert status. The aircraft was to launch again later that night for the fifth callout of their 24 hour duty. Lt Lightfoot commanded a crew through a period of constant bad weather. He planned and conducted a rescue with flexibility of thought and, crucially, it worked and lives undoubtedly saved. Lt Cdr Lanni positioned the aircraft in close proximity to obstructions for over 90 minutes and together they took the aircraft to the very limit of its fuel endurance. This rescue tested every fibre of POACMN Speed, from a near drowning to exhausting work in freezing conditions. The crew of R177 were resolute, determined and successful and with no other feasible method of recovery, their actions were decisive in saving all. The entire crew is therefore most deservedly recognised for their outstanding courage and devotion to duty by the award of the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award.
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