Only the BRAVE…

On 22 Feb 12, as part of APC’s ongoing Force Development activities, eight members of the team spent the day with ‘B’ Flt 22 Sqn at, what now is called, Wattisham Station

The aim of the visit was to learn more about the history and ethos of the SAR force, its place in the future RAF and to understand the challenges currently being faced.  The RAF maintains a 24-hour search and rescue (SAR) service, covering the whole of the UK and a large surrounding area. Whilst the service exists primarily to assist military aircrew and other personnel in distress, the vast majority of ‘scrambles’ are to assist civilians who find themselves in difficulties, either on land or at sea.

Already two men down, due to late work commitments and sickness, our intrepid band set off for Suffolk from the Officers’ Mess, at first light, ably driven by Flt Lt Stu Smith and assisted by Lola his ever reliable Satnav. As we hit the M25, the clouds closed in and with the prospect of a three-hour drive ahead of us, thoughts immediately turned to the scheduling of the first caffeine fix of the day. However, before any such logistical decisions could be made, the word from BBC radio was that a helicopter from Wattisham Airfield had had to make an emergency landing in a field, having hit power lines near Ipswich. Fortunately, all fears of us being grounded were allayed, when it was confirmed that the airframe in question was in fact an Apache, with no casualties reported and, much to the relief of the ladies, had been crewed by a commoner.

Stu and Lola continued to make good time and, being ahead of schedule, we managed our caffeine stop at a Wild Bean premises just off the A14. However, not even the thought of hot liquid refreshment, service with a smile and a Mars Bar duo could tempt Flt Lt Rich “my body is a temple” Pountney from his 10 o’clock rye bread. Time on Target at Wattisham was achieved and once our Project Officer (PO), Flt Lt Kerry Shardlow, had successfully dealt with the Guardroom staff, we were escorted through, what is now, the domain of the Army Air Corps (AAC), to the home of ‘B’ Flt 22 Sqn and its two Sea King HAR3A helicopters. Having received a warm welcome from Flt Lt Bob Dewes and more caffeine in the crewroom, which, much to the author’s disgust, was served in a Norwich City mug (could have been worse!), the programme for the day was briefed by the duty winchman, Sgt Ady Brind. Following a safety video, we proceeded to the hangar where, prior to our flight, we were orientated through ingress and egress procedures for the Sea King and given a hands-on brief on the aircraft.

Then it was back to the Flt Safety Equipment Section for kitting. The service personnel amongst us, who were wearing CS95, headed straight to the Ops Room for a pre-flt brief, whereas our civilian colleagues joined ‘B’ Flt’s answer to Christian Dior, to receive their flying suits and boots. Having been divided into two groups and the F700 signed, we were on the point of walking (start of Top Gun terminology, now), when the ladies returned, resplendent in their pristine new flying suits, sans handbags. It was helmets on and off to the waiting Sea King, rotors turning (I love the smell of Avtur in the morning!) for the first flight over Ipswich, Felixstowe and the surrounding countryside. Taking it in turns to sit on the cusp of the open door, we saw the sights of Suffolk, some paying homage over the home of Ipswich Town at Portman Road (Natalie still prefers Adams Park), whilst others complimented the AAC’s cordon technique around the Apache in the field. Having regained the circulation to our feet, it was soon time to RTU and, following a quick turn-round, the second party departed. Some may say, unsurprisingly, the aircrew treated the watching cameras to some good views of the Sea King before heading off into the, now gathering, gloom. As the rains came, those now in the warmth of the crewroom heard the returning Sea King and went out to greet our colleagues. Needless to say, by this time, there was no need for lighting on the pan as it was illuminated by the beaming smiles of those walking back from their trip.

Lunch was taken, flying suits prised away from the clutches of our glamour queens and then we headed off for a briefing and film on the SAR Force. The film was originally scheduled to last 18 mins, but had to be extended, as the older members amongst us had to explain the names and roles of some of the, now historic, aircraft being featured. All too soon it was time to depart, thanks were extended, gizzits exchanged and heaters on the minibus primed as we, once again, put ourselves in the capable hands of Stu and Lola for the journey home.

We would all like to extend our thanks to the members of ‘B’ Flt 22 Sqn Wattisham for taking the time out to host us and for the hospitality extended. It should be noted that they remained on call throughout our visit and could have been diverted to a “shout” at any juncture. Our knowledge and appreciation of the difficult and often dangerous job undertaken by our SAR crews, along with envisaged future changes, was certainly enhanced by our experiences at Wattisham. Thanks also to Flt Lt Kerry Shardlow, our able PO, for her organisational skills and, of course, to Stu and Lola for getting us there and back in one piece.