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RAF helicopter crews honoured

8th March 2009 - 14:30 GMT | by The Shephard News Team


RAF Helicopter crews have been recognised for their bravery. Three pilots from the Chinook, Merlin and Sea King communities have been honoured for flying operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and on SAR missions in the UK. Rescue winchman Richard Taylor has been awarded for his efforts in the rescue of a ferry crew in the Irish Sea.

Two of the RAF pilots - Flt Lts Kevin Harris and Alex ‘Frenchie' Duncan - will be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross - and the third - Flt Lt Lee Turner will receive the Air Force Cross. Master Aircrewman Richard Taylor will be awarded the Queens Gallantry Medal.

The DFC is awarded to all ranks of the Services in recognition of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy in the air. The Air Force Cross is awarded for gallantry in the air not in the face of the enemy and the QGM is awarded to military personnel for those acts for which military honours would not normally be granted, such as acts of exemplary bravery not in presence of the enemy.

Flt Lt Duncan was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Pilot Flt Lt Alex ‘Frenchie' Duncan of 27 Sqn was the captain of a Chinook twin-rotor helicopter involved in two distinct operations in Afghanistan last year. His squadron is based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire but he had been deployed to Afghanistan to support troops on the ground and evacuate casualties from the front line.

On May 17 he was part of a 3 aircraft formation tasked to fly a VIP party, including the Governor of Helmand Province, from Lashkar Ghar to Musa Qal'eh.

Whilst flying at ultra low level the aircraft came under sustained assault from the ground and was hit by rocket propelled grenade (RPG), heavy machine gun (HMG) and small arms fire. Aware that his aircraft had been hit due to an uncontrolled lurch of the aircraft he quickly assessed that he still had sufficient control and manoeuvred to clear the immediate threat area and weigh up his options.

Having lost one hydraulic system and a large portion of a main rotor blade he decided to return to Forward Operating Base EDINBURGH making a safe landing and offloading the VIP party without incident.

Just 6 days later, Flt Lt Duncan was part of a 4 aircraft, 2-wave night air-assault around Musa Qal'eh in support of 2 Para Battle Group that was gauged to be opposed by insurgents. The lead pair of aircraft was engaged by RPG, HMG and small arms. Flt Lt Duncan led the second pair into the hostile area and departed before returning to lead the second wave into a second hostile landing site under continued engagement by enemy firepower.

Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb said, "Throughout both events Flt Lt Duncan displayed consummate professionalism and strength of character, in the first instance taking immediate and appropriate action to recover a badly hit aircraft with a VIP party on board, and in the second pressing ahead an air assault in the face of intense fire to ensure the force protection of the battle group troops. His actions, bravery and stoicism are worthy of formal recognition."

Flt Lt Duncan said, "We were running up to the landing site and 20 feet off the ground when I felt a lurch and heard a bang. I thought I'd lost the aircraft but although it was shaking I found I still had control. We decided to get out of there fast - we had 16 passengers on board. The five to six mile flight to where we landed the Chinook was the longest journey of my life. We considered landing half way there but the risk of coming under further attack with so many civilians on board I decided wasn't a good idea. We were very; very lucky to get to the forward operating base and when I saw the hole at the back and the torn rotor blade I couldn't believe we made it."

Flt Lt Harris was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On March 26 last year Flt Lt Kevin Harris, of 28 Sqn, RAF Benson, Oxfordshire, was the Captain of the Immediate Response Team (IRT) Merlin aircraft that was scrambled to recover a fatally wounded soldier from Basrah Palace in Iraq. The Merlin Force is based at Basrah to support ground forces and evacuate casualties.

With reported weather conditions at the minimum acceptable, he elected to lift to attempt an extraction. Due to heavy fighting, the helicopter landing site at the Palace had been subjected to indirect fire attacks throughout the day and the noise of an approaching
helicopter would provide insurgents with a warning of a high profile target inbound; Flt Lt Harris was fully aware of the risk. In poor weather and fading light he flew his aircraft tactically, at ultra low level, into the potentially lethal landing site.

On arrival there was no sign of the casualty; Flt Lt Harris held his Merlin on the ground for as long as possible, fully exposed to indirect fire. With danger increasing by the minute he eventually had to lift, whereupon he saw the casualty being moved to the landing site. Aware of the risk to his crew Harris made a second landing. Having touched down, it took some time to embark all passengers as not one but three seriously injured casualties required evacuation; all the time indirect fire was landing in and around the palace.

In absolute minimum flying conditions, Flt Lt Harris lifted and flew directly across the city to expedite the recovery to hospital. He flew his Merlin at roof top height; hopping over power lines and weaving around known hostile areas until safely back at the Contingency Operating Base at Basrah.

Over the period from March 26-28 Flt Lt Harris led his team on another five occasions, extracting 30 very seriously wounded personnel and a significant number of other casualties. His commander, Group Captain Dean Andrew said," Harris is very strongly recommended for this award for unflinching gallantry, distinguished flying and leadership in the finest traditions of the Service, to preserve the lives of others."

Flt Lt Turner received the Air Force Cross.

On the night of January 31 last year Flt Lt Lee Turner was the Captain of Rescue 122, the duty RAF Search & Rescue helicopter operating from RAF Valley on Anglesey in North Wales, when it flew to the aid of 23 persons on board the ferry "Riverdance". The ship had lost all power and was in severe difficulties in atrocious weather 10 nautical miles North-West of Blackpool.

With storm force winds of between 50 and 70 knots, the Sea King helicopter crew were struggling to see even with night vision goggles and, arriving at the scene, the "Riverdance" was seen to be listing between 45 and 60 degrees.

Despite outstanding flying by Flt Lt Turner, the crew's numerous attempts to lower the winchman on the high side of the vessel were unsuccessful. There was no choice but to attempt to winch onto the more treacherous low side of the vessel. Through exceptionally accurate flying and measured perseverance in such a dangerous scenario Flt Lt Turner succeeded in putting his winchman on the deck.

Flt Lt Turner had to maintain an accurate hover close to the rolling vessel for an extended period, demanding huge skill and concentration. At one stage his quick reactions prevented disaster when he carried out immediate avoiding action as a ships mast was about to strike the aircraft. Eight casualties were rescued and flown to Blackpool. Another helicopter, the Royal Navy's Rescue 177 from HMS Gannet based at Prestwick Airport in south-west Scotland, arrived at the scene and rescued further crew.

Several hours later Flt Lt Turner's helicopter was scrambled again. The "Riverdance" was now stranded on a sandbank and at serious risk of capsizing with crew still on board. Turner and his crew unhesitatingly ventured back out into appalling flying conditions and
safely recovered the remaining 9 casualties. Group Captain Steve Garden said, "Turner's courage, leadership and outstanding flying skills in exceptionally demanding conditions were in the finest traditions of the service; he selflessly displayed valour and gallantry of an exemplary order while saving the lives of 17 people."

Wg Cdr Andy Barr said, "Turner's flying that night matches any I've seen in 15 years. Normally a recce over a rescue site takes 5 minutes. For the ‘Riverdance' rescue, Turner and his crew took 50 minutes to survey and plan the rescue. At times the mast from the ship was within a few feet of the underside of the Sea King."

MACR Taylor was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal.

On the evening of Jan 31 last year Master Aircrewman Richard Taylor was the Paramedic Winchman called out to rescue the crew of the "Riverdance."

Displaying humbling courage and scant regard for his own safety, MACR Taylor was winched on to the rolling, pitching and extremely hazardous deck. Conditions on board were lethal as Taylor continually made his way up and down the steep, listing deck whilst being battered by huge waves. Despite this he organised the evacuation of passengers and crew. With 8 casualties safely recovered into the helicopter, Taylor assessed their conditions as they were transferred ashore.

Temporarily relieved by the Royal Navy's Rescue 177, Taylor's helicopter was later scrambled a second time back into the maelstrom at 0415hrs. The "Riverdance" was now stranded on a sandbank with its cargo becoming loose and moving freely on deck. Despite being exhausted and in full appreciation of this additional deadly hazard, Taylor unhesitatingly returned to the deck to rescue the remaining 9 crew.

Group Captain Steve Garden said, "Throughout this treacherous night Taylor put himself in grave danger time after time to save others."

Wg Cdr Andy Barr said, "Taylor remained on the ship while he affected the rescue of passengers two by two and he only returned to the aircraft with the last pair which tested the winch to its limits.

At times, the swing of the winch line extended in a 90 degree arc under the aircraft. I am not surprised Taylor succeeded in this mission as he already holds the highest operational winching category in the Search and Rescue Force."

MACR Taylor said, "As we surveyed the ship rising in the swell and swinging left to right I've never had such a dry mouth."

The Shephard News Team


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