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Rescuers’ life-saving milestone

PUBLISHED: 07:45 27 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:06 22 October 2010

Winchman Andy Ball and Sgt Paul Howard are pictured in action, after reaching a landmark 2,000 scrambles.

Winchman Andy Ball and Sgt Paul Howard are pictured in action, after reaching a landmark 2,000 scrambles.

For 12 years Sea King helicopters from Wattisham airfield have flown across East Anglia to help those in trouble - the drowning swimmers, the missing children and the desperately ill babies.

For 12 years Sea King helicopters from Wattisham airfield have flown across East Anglia to help those in trouble - the drowning swimmers, the missing children and the desperately ill babies.

And now the Suffolk-based search and rescue force is celebrating its 2000th call-out, a landmark in a dozen eventful years. B-Flight of 22 Squadron moved to Suffolk in July 1994 to provide search and rescue cover from the Wash to Dover. It was taking the job over from RAF Coltishall, although the unit itself came from Kent.

Yesterday there was a mood of celebration at Wattisham, near Stowmarket, as crews contemplated the landmark call-out. The incident was suitably dramatic - a fire on Sealand, the former gunnery tower 10 miles off Felixstowe. The Sea King crew rescued the one man on board the platform and took him to hospital, before returning to Sealand with a cargo of firefighters.

Flt Lt Dave Kay, the pilot during Friday's rescue, said: “As we approached we could see the guy on the non-burning end of the platform. He pointed to the flames and shrugged his shoulders. Up until then his options were staying on a burning platform, or jumping 75 metres to the sea below, so he was quite glad to see us.”

But no sooner had they returned from the incident than call-out 2001 came - a man on a yacht in the Orwell, suffering burns after the coolant system exploded.

He was too badly burned to be winched up, so the crew got him on to a waiting lifeboat and picked him up again from the river bank to take him to hospital.

Many people imagine that the search and rescue unit is only used on the coast, but land-based incidents take up half of their work. Often these are babies that need flying to a specialist hospital, while searches for missing people and even road accidents are also all in a day's work. The crew have night-vision goggles and infra-red equipment and are the only team that can offer night-time search and rescue over land.

Sqn Ldr Neil Robertson, B-Flight's commanding officer, said that the job is difficult and challenging, but also exciting.

He said: “I am on shift for 24 hours at a time, and when the scramble goes you go out there and you don't know what you will be doing next.

“It could be little Johnny being blown out to sea on a lilo, or another Piper Alpha or Herald of Free Enterprise.

“You know that when the scramble goes you are going out and doing something and at the end of the day it is being able to help people who need your help.”

Those who have been helped include a pilot whose Harrier crashed during the 2002 Lowestoft air show, and a Suffolk woman trapped under an overturned Broads cruiser on the river Bure in 2003, in an incident in which another passenger died.

The force commander, Group Capt Steve Garden, said: “With the incidents the Sea King gets involved in, you can never tell what would have happened if we hadn't been there. Normally someone gets rescued from a dangerous situation which no-one else could get to and taken to a place of safety.

“The great thing for the crews is they are making a difference day in, day out. They carry out a job for which they train all the time and get the reward of seeing the training in action, making a difference.”


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