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Craig Sweeney Receives Bravery Award for Rescue

December 20, 2013

Amid blizzard conditions the night of December 18, 2011, Royal Navy search and rescue (SAR) pilot Craig Sweeney led a daring mission to a Scottish mountaintop to rescue an injured climber. His efforts on that day were recognized earlier this year when he received the U.K. Air Force Cross, which honors grit, determination and courage in non-combat aviation.

“Sweeney demonstrated exceptional levels of leadership, grit and composure, enabling him to fly the most demanding sortie of his career,” said Sweeney’s commanding officer in the Royal Navy.

Today, Sweeney is part of the Bristow team working on the transition of U.K. SAR services to Bristow, trading in his Sea King Mark 5 aircraft for a Sikorsky S-92. “I never cease to be amazed at the bravery and courage we have within our SAR teams,” says Samantha Willenbacher Director, U.K. Search and Rescue.

“I found out about the award when I received a letter from Buckingham Palace earlier this year,” Sweeney says. “Along with my wife and parents I attended the awards ceremony at the palace and was presented with the award by Prince Charles on behalf of the Queen. It was a fantastic day and one I never expected. The award came as a true shock.”

Credit to the team

Along with the individual award, the entire rescue team was also recognized for their efforts on that day with the Fleet Air Arm Sword, awarded for the finest feat of naval aviation.

"In every SAR aircraft there are four people working very hard together to execute any rescue."

“In every SAR aircraft there are four people working very hard together to execute any rescue,” Sweeney says. “The Fleet Air Arm Sword is a team award that truly reflects the efforts of all on board that day. In particular, crewman Jason Bibby provided me with exceptional and seamless support in the most extreme Scottish weather conditions.”

Bristow is leveraging the skills and experience of its former military crew members in the development of enhanced SAR related training activities. Bibby has played a key role in contributing to Bristow’s night vision goggle training.

“I am proud that we have the opportunity to continue to work together as partners, now providing SAR services for Bristow on behalf of the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency (MCA),” says Sweeney.

Rescue recap

The injured climber was near the top of the 3,074-foot Beinn Sgulaird mountain in Scotland when he was able to make a distress call on his cell phone. Arriving on scene, Sweeney had his doubts about being able to fly up the mountain.

“Above 1,500 feet we were into clouds and recirculating snow, which made for extremely delicate flying, and essentially our only visual references came from the mountain itself,” Sweeney says. “But we knew the climber had a serious ankle injury, so he would not be able to walk down the mountain or survive the night in those conditions.”

Flying extremely close to the rock face and relying on night vision goggles, the crew and the mountain rescue team on board inched their way up the mountain. Sweeney relied on his training in Arctic Norway and the deserts of Afghanistan to continue the ascent and reassure the crew that they will be able to safely reach the climber.

Approaching the summit, the rescuers were able to barely spot a light being held by the climber and moved to a position where the rescue team could be set down, although the terrain was slippery and very steep. The winchman, a qualified paramedic, made a quick assessment of the injury and then it was back down the mountain to a hospital. They arrived at the hospital with five minutes of fuel remaining.

"They were amazing, very professional, reassured me and talked me through exactly what was happening. If it wasn't for these guys I might not be here today."

The rescued climber, now recovered, wants to join a mountain rescue team as a way of giving back. “I am very grateful to all those involved who risked their safety to assist me,” he says. “They were amazing, very professional, reassured me and talked me through exactly what was happening. If it wasn’t for these guys I might not be here today.”

The BBC plans to air an interview with Sweeney in January, discussing his military and flying careers as well as receiving the Air Force Cross. Additionally, a more-detailed account of the rescue is available on the Royal Navy website.