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Crews Recount Memorable Rescues; Early Days of SAR at Sumburgh

November 26, 2013

Michael Birley, winch operator at the Sumburgh unit from 1983 until 1984 recounts what the earlier weeks were like:

“Several of us who made up the first SAR crew had been working for Bristow as BP funded SAR winch operators on the Forties Bravo and Delta Production Platforms in the North Sea and going to the aid of ships or helicopters in the vicinity.

“It was good news when we were told that Bristow Helicopters had won the contract for the Sumburgh SAR service. The first Chief Pilot to be appointed was a gentleman called Gordon Mitchell.

“We flew from Aberdeen to Sumburgh on November 30th ready to commence operations on December 1st. Having spent several years working offshore in the North Sea we were used to bad weather so Shetland wind and rain was not too much of a shock for us and of course driving on the largely empty roads was a great pleasure.

“Our first call out came on 7 December 1983 to escort a North Scottish S76 helicopter which had reported a technical problem. Our team of Captain John Whale, co-pilot Paul Martin, myself as winch operator and Chris Bond as winchman carried out the mission.

“We occupied two company bungalows located in a place called Hardbreaks. We would take it in turns to cook dinner each evening some with more success than others but after a hard days’ work any hot food was welcome.

“Chris Jackson was the first chief engineer on the unit and he hailed from Northern Ireland. I believe his wife was kind enough to prepare Christmas dinner for those of us on duty on December 25th and this was served in the hangar.

“We were not very busy in the beginning but that soon changed.”

Memorable Rescues
The first civil certified all-weather SAR S61, G-BDOC, complete with duplex SAR auto hover and the latest Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) system, arrived at Sumburgh in January 1985 and became affectingly known as Oscar Charlie. The aircraft became part of the community and in 2007 when it was replaced, its successor retained the name. Over many years of service, Oscar Charlie has been involved in numerous memorable rescues.

On 5 November 1985 the Sumburgh unit was tasked with a medical rescue from a container ship 30 miles from Shetland. Strong northerly winds of 60 knots and a heavy swell made it a particularly challenging rescue. Immediately on completion of the mission the crew was tasked to another incident to evacuate 45 personnel from a rig in the Forties Field after the installation shutdown. In January 1993, the MV Braer was an oil tanker which ran aground off the coast of Shetland in a storm causing its engine to flood with water. Given the terrible weather conditions we were called to conduct a challenging evacuation all 14 non-essential crew from the vessel. In November of that year, the Sumburgh unit assisted the MV Lunohods, a Russian fish factory ship which ran aground on rocks below Bressay point in a 70 knots storm. Bristow’s S61N, Oscar Charlie, was called to the scene and lifted all 60 plus crew to safety as huge waves crashed over the wreck. A record 32 survivors were rescued in one lift – a record which survives to this day. The rescue saw winchman Friedie Manson awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his bravery.

As one would expect, the Sumburgh unit has been no stranger to tragedy in its 30 years of SAR. In 1988, Oscar Charlie struggled to get to survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster as flames of over 100 metres raged on the platform. The Sumburgh unit assisted in rescuing survivors of the disaster in which 165 workers lost their lives. The incident was followed by the Cullen Inquiry which marked a dramatic step change in the oil and gas industry’s approach to safety. In November 1997 the merchant vessel Green Lily got into difficulties in a force 12 gale with 15 crewmembers on board. With the vessel foundering, five crewmembers were taken off by the Lerwick Lifeboat, a feat honoured by the coxswain receiving the RNLI’s Gold Medal, its highest award for gallantry. With the Green Lily very close to the rocky shoreline, the remaining crew had to rely on the SAR helicopter for rescue.

In mountainous seas, Billy Deacon was winched down to the deck of the vessel. Once on board he placed the remaining crewmembers, two at a time, in the rescue strops and they were all winched to the safety of the helicopter. As the helicopter was in the process of recovering Billy who was alone on the deck and with the ship now on the rocks, he was washed overboard and engulfed by the waves. In recognition of Billy’s outstanding courage and bravery in the most severe and demanding conditions he was posthumously awarded the George Medal. The incident raised the bar in search and rescue safety standards. Bristow went on to design the dual hoist which is now a standard piece of SAR kit across the industry. Bristow also established the Billy Deacon Award in his honour and memory, awarded each year to winchmen or winch operators from the Coastguard, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy for meritorious service during SAR helicopter operations from UK SAR bases.