Zoe Dunford on a search and rescue mission over the Suffolk coast
Zoe Dunford takes to the air over the Suffolk coast in a Sea King search and rescue (SAR) helicopter operated by B Flight 22 Squadron of RAF Wattisham
I am UGS. That’s utterly gob-smacked in my own version of the language of three letter abbreviations – or TLAs as they are fondly known and frequently used by the crew of B Flight 22 Squadron.My hair is a mess. I am still drunk with the motion of the helicopter. My mind is intoxicated with all that I have just experienced. When I first arrive I know I’m in the right place when I see a baby-faced guard cradling an SA80 assault rifle. This is serious.I pass a building labelled ‘attack aviation’ and a sign warning of live firing. I get a sense that anything might happen. Which is very much the ethos of SAR. They prepare for the unexpected and work on the presumption that if something can happen, it bloody well will.I am escorted to the base. Just beyond the car park is the runway, and the unmistakable, bright yellow hulk of a Sea King helicopter. It looks huge and I feel a rush of excitement. v v Inside the building I pass a cabinet of sporting trophies and a board displaying photos of all the staff, some with added moustaches and devil’s horns. The control room is a mesmerizing mix of old-fashioned telephones, high-tech equipment, crazily detailed maps and neatly stored immersion suits. Wearing these is obligatory whenever the sea temperature is below 10�C and when flying at night. With them, you get about three hours to live in the North Sea. Without them you might have a few minutes.The control room walls are lined with instructions. I learn that ditching a helicopter into the water might happen accidentally, but it may also become the safest option if you lose an engine. The Sea King helicopter has a boat-shaped hull and can actually be driven along on the water, Bond-style, to reach the nearest beach. The crew I meet have been on duty for 23 hours and have an hour to go until their 10am handover. They were called out for a ‘medivac’ (medical evacuation) in the night to take a child with pneumonia and multiple organ failure from the James Paget Hospital in Yarmouth to Addenbrookes in Cambridge. From 10pm to 8am the on-duty crew are on readiness state 45 – they can be in the air within 45 minutes of receiving a call in their slumber. From 8am to 10pm they move up to the sprinting pace of readiness state 15. The handover happens at 10am precisely. The outgoing pilot actually counts down 5-4-3-2-1 before starting. We get today’s forecast – strong winds, low cloud, turbulence. Oh dear. We get a report of what else might be in the air. Gliders, increased bird activity, royal flights, that kind of thing. Finally, we are told what’s on the menu for supper. Stew with dumplings, cooked by pilot Richard ‘Strooky’ Strookman (the crew cook all their own meals and I spot Jamie and Nigella among the recipe books).Strooky has been a qualified pilot since 1988. From the age of ten, when he saw a big air display, it was all he wanted to do. Like most courageous people, he won’t talk much about the crew’s derring-do, so I ask about the most bizarre rescue they’d come across. Apparently it was three grown men adrift at sea in a child’s paddling pool. Drink had been taken. It’s time to get kitted up. First on are the white cotton thermals. Then it’s a ‘bunny suit’. No, not cuddly ears and a fluffy tail. The bunny suit is a thick, itchy-looking, woollen all-in-one. Very fetching. Next it’s the immersion suit, which is fine until I try to get my head into the thing. I now know what it feels like being born. To a chant of “push Zoe, push!” I stretch, pull and heave my head through the rubber neck until I burst through exhausted. Before take-off, winch-operator Dougie Larkam shows me round the helicopter and runs through a last safety check. If we hit the water, he says, it’s every man for himself. I take special care to note how to release the windows and doors.My final piece of kit is a helmet. This is so ill-fitting and heavy, it feels as if my head could fall off. As we walk out on to the runway I feel uncomfortable and uneasy. Nevertheless I give a cheery thumbs-up to Strooky. Stiff upper lip and all that…Dougie shows me to a seat opposite the door. Strooky and co-pilot Bob Dewes run through a shopping list of safety checks and we take off. The wind from the rotor blades knocks over the photographer, showing the almighty power of this twin-engined beast. I have volunteered to be winched. We start with a dry winch over the airfield. Winch operator Shawn Clark is lowered first and the cable hoisted back to be attached to my harness.I inch to the door until I am sitting with my legs dangling outside. I last did this on a parachute jump and try hard to remember not to hurl myself forwards. In the end the winch does all the work for me. It plucks me out of the cabin and into the great blustery outdoors. It’s like a parachute jump in slow motion.Once on the ground, Shawn grabs me in what I can only describe as a leg-cuddle and gently lifts me back to the SeaKing. Pre-9/11, I always used to request a stint in the cock-pit on long-distance flights. Today I am in for a treat as Dougie invites me to sit behind the pilots and chat to them through the intercom. We are flying at about 600ft at a speed of around 90 knots. A stick between the legs controls roll. Foot pedals control the direction of travel and another stick on the left controls the height. A pilot has to operate all three at once. My second winch is going to be on to a boat. Yikes. But try as they might, Strooky and Bob can’t contact the ship they had in mind, the HMS Mersey. Bob finally spots it at dock near Harwich. So they scan the skyline for other ships and choose the Barent Zanen – a Dutch dredger. As we make radio contact and approach, we see the bridge fill with spectators. The Barent Zanen is a confusion of pipes, containers and heavy machinery with no obvious safe place to land. I am seriously impressed when Dougie skilfully lowers Shawn on to a slither of deck. The tanker changes course and Dougie aims for the wider aft deck for me.I am lowered out. The harness tears at my back but a rush of adrenalin kicks in and I don’t care. I give Dougie a grin and wave as I fly down to the moving monolith. On deck some of the crew come out to take photos and shake our hands. It is hard to have a conversation above the noise of the sea, the wind, the tanker and the helicopter, so I smile a lot and feel a little like a minor royal.Shawn puts me in two harnesses for the return journey – one round the back and one under my legs. This is how casualties are lifted and feels luxuriously comfortable.The next exercise is to lift a ‘drum’ out of the water. The drum – basically a couple of crates tied together with plastic bottles inside for buoyancy – is a speck in the brown-grey swell. Dougie calls it apple-bobbing with a helicopter. He tries retrieving it with a grappling hook and misses.“Yes please!” I think, when invited to have a go. Knowing I’m attached I can confidently lean out. Dougie does the hard part of guiding Strooky into position, while I move the cable in my right hand and the winch up and down with my left. On about the third go I miraculously lift it clear and am elated. Dougie points out another small lever. This one allows the rear crew to move the helicopter themselves. My heart leaps when he says I can try it. It needs subtle movements and there is a lag but I am definitely moving us.As we head back to base, Dougie lets me sit in the radshack (radar shack) to play with the TV camera and thermal imaging camera. There is hardly anyone braving the uninviting elements today but we find a field of pigs – undistinguishable on the TV monitor but clear black spots of warmth via thermal imaging.I am wide-eyed and UGS at all that I have experienced when we step back into the control room. That night, my husband asks if it was one of the best days of my life. I hadn’t thought of it like that. But it was. What a shame that most people will meet the crew in less congenial circumstances.