By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | May 1, 2013
On March 21, 2013, the crew of a UK Royal Air Force (RAF) Sikorsky S-61 Sea King rescued a French trawler crewman with serious head injuries on the ninth attempt when a violent storm in the Irish Sea made a boat-to-boat transfer impossible. Although a Royal Navy hydrographic ship, HMS Echo, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution boat Angel responded to the trawler captain’s call for help, the violent pitching and rolling of the 25-foot trawler Alf meant that a winching operation was the only practical option.
The crew of the S-61, Rescue 169 from A Flight 22 Squadron, initially made six attempts to get winchwoman Sgt. Rachel Robinson onboard the trawler, but she was continually unable to securely land due to the 40-foot range of pitching and the dangerous role of the vessel, with the speed of the winch cable pay-out unable to keep pace with the ship’s motion. Waves sweeping the small landing area also carried her off target several times.
Needing to refuel, the helicopter returned the 50-plus miles to shore then came back for a second attempt. What had made matters worse, and more complicated, was that the French captain and crew spoke little English, therefore all communication between the helicopter and the trawler had to be conducted through UK and French coastguards via satellite phone.
A new plan was formed for the next rescue attempt. The lifeboat was positioned around 65 feet (20 meters) off the trawler’s starboard side giving the S-61’s pilot an improved visual reference for the extraction attempt, and with HMS Echo trying its best to shield the vessel from some of the weather, on the third occasion Sgt. Robinson got down successfully onto the trawler’s deck.
The crewman’s head injuries were found to be critical and Robinson determined an immediate hospital transfer was necessary. Using a single-strop, the Sea King’s pilot Taff Wilkins calculated the lift to the optimum second, climbing his Sea King as the trawler reached the top of a swell and lifting both the injured crewman and winchwoman away from the heaving deck. Although with head injuries and hypothermia, the crewman was treated during his return to hospital on the mainland and survived.