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Billy Deacon Search and Rescue Memorial Trophy Presented to Winchman Gary Robertson

June 03, 2017

The Billy Deacon SAR Memorial Trophy was presented to Irish Coast Guard Winchman Gary Robertson at the Air League's Annual Awards Ceremony at St James Palace, on May 30, 2017, by HRH Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh.

Sponsored by Bristow Helicopters and Breitling UK, the trophy was established to further the memory of Billy Deacon, winchman for Bristow Helicopters, who was tragically lost while carrying out his duty on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) search and rescue (SAR) helicopter based at Sumburgh in the Shetland Isles in 1997.

The Billy Deacon SAR Memorial Trophy is awarded to winchmen and/or winch operators from contracted MCA helicopter flights operating within the UK and Irish SAR regions for meritorious service during SAR helicopter operations. The award committee, independently chaired by the Operations Director of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, meets annually to consider nominations.

The citation for the 2017 award is as follows:

On Saturday April 9, 2016, Rescue 118 was scrambled by Malin Head Maritime Rescue Centre to a report of a capsized vessel and a person in the water by Innisinny Bay, Arranmore Island some 60 miles North West of Sligo. Rescue 118 routed direct to the scene.

The weather en route was post frontal, a cold air temperature of two degrees, scattered cloud, clear skies, a light tail wind and sea state six with a large swell and sea temperature of 10 degrees. With 10 minutes to run, it became clear that the Arranmore ALB had arrived on scene, but was unable to effect a safe rescue due to the extreme sea state and building surf. Upon arrival of Rescue 118, the six-meter fishing vessel had already sunk and the casualty was seen clinging to a life buoy with his left arm. The casualty had managed to inflate his lifejacket but had no survival suit. The aircraft commander coordinated the scene of SAR actions, directing the flying pilot to position the S-92 alongside the casualty.

With waves repeatedly crashing onto the casualty, frequently submerging him and pushing him toward the shore, it was clear that a swift rescue was required to save this fisherman's life. The winchman was deployed to the scene and, as he approached through heavy seas, it quickly became apparent that the rescue would be more complex than anticipated. As the winchman reached the casualty and, in the process of attempting to apply the two strops to effect a critical hydrostatic lift, both the winchman and winch operator noticed that the casualty was embroiled in a sizeable amount of thick rope.

On closer inspection, the rope, estimated to be about 30 feet long and one centimeter thick, was wrapped three to four times around the casualty. The rope was also attached to the life buoy and tethered to the submerged boat. As the winchman battled the severe sea state surge and the downwash from Rescue 118, both the winchman and casualty were consistently submerged.

In an attempt to remove the downwash, the winch operator skillfully conned the aircraft to a position some 18 yards offset and around 250 feet above where the downwash effect was minimized. Skillful and accurate flying enabled the winch operator to maintain this position, monitoring the winchman at all times as he struggled to attach both strops. Once ready to recover the winchman and casualty, and acutely aware that both the winchman, casualty and Rescue 118 were indirectly attached to the submerged vessel by the rope, the winch operator deftly raised the winch, whilst the co-pilot maintained a steady hover, to a position where the winchman could access his knife and cut the ropes which were now under tension. Once cut, the combination of an accurate con and steady flying ability enabled the winchman to swing free raising the casualty clear of the water and swell. It was identified that the casualty's left arm remained in spasm unable to release the lifebuoy.

En route to hospital, Gary Robertson, a HCPC and PHECC registered paramedic, realised the severity of the casualty's condition, semi-conscious, frothing at the mouth and cyanosed. With the assistance of his winch operator, immediate lifesaving medical care was administered. Upon arrival at the hospital, Gary Robertson conducted a comprehensive patient handover to the medical team. Despite the casualty's condition on arrival, the hospital team was able to treat and therapeutically warm him returning a positive result. The swift and extraordinary physical and mentally exhausting efforts from the dynamic action of Gary Robertson, both in the water and in the aircraft, resulted in this casualty's life being saved.