ACA Woking News by Paul Holden, PRO

21 September 2004


Speaker and Branch Chairman
Eric Smith GM
At a recent meeting of the Woking Branch of the Aircrew Association, when the scheduled speaker turned out to be unavailable, members were treated to a rare insight into maritime rescue operations from two of their members who became Helicopter Winchmen at one stage of their peacetime RAF service.

Branch Chairman Eric Smith, who as a boy closely followed the war in the air as an avid reader of aircraft magazines, joined the service in 1953 (after Air Training Corps experience on Tiger Moths at Fairoaks) and underwent training in airborne electronics, air gunnery and maritime reconnaissance, before his first posting to a Shackleton Squadron as Air Electronics Officer, based at St. Eval. There he spent over 1,100 hours monitoring Russian Naval movements, often airborne for 18 – 20 hours at a time in this very reliable submarine hunter.

After this tour he spent a stint training navigators at Shawbury, as a signaller/co-pilot on Varsity trainers, before being posted as an Air Winchman on helicopters. It was during this tour of operation that on November 3rd 1962 they responded to a call from the Plymouth Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which resulted in his award of a George Medal for exceptional bravery. A French Trawler had run aground on the rocks around Lands End in the early hours of the morning, and was being broken up by heavy seas washing right over the decks and grinding the hull on the rocks below. It looked hopeless that here could be any survivors left on board, so after picking up the body of one seaman floating in the water nearby, they returned to Culdrose for refuelling.

During their absence, a coastguard on the cliffs unbelievably spotted a man still aboard the stricken hull – so they returned to the scene, and in strong and gusty winds Eric was winched down to the Captain’s cabin, which was constantly being washed over by huge waves, and plucked out this man to return to the aircraft with him, only to discover that there were four more men trapped in an air-lock in the radio cabin behind.

Eric was able to show a four-minute amateur cine film shot by a bystander, in which you could see Eric diving under the partition and dragging out these men one at a time, and being winched up into the aircraft. What you couldn’t see, which Eric graphically described, was that on his last attempt, his winch cable became trapped under the wheel in the wheelhouse, and Eric had to take a deep breath and dive down after it under the heaving waves, in the dark, to disentangle it from the steering gear, in order to escape from the wheelhouse and return to the aircraft himself. Seldom could a George Medal have been so deservedly earned.

Another Branch member who also ended up as a helicopter winchman filled the second half of the evening with an account of his career. Alister (Dinty) More had always wanted to be an Air Gunner from a very early age and, after several vicissitudes, achieved this ambition, (later converting to an 'Air Electronics Officer') serving first on Lancasters, and then on Shackletons. Then, after an Air Gunnery Instructors’ course, he was sent to Warton for weapon systems operations on TSR 2. This very advanced aircraft had five separate radar systems, three of which were operating at any one time.

When this aircraft was scrapped, he was posted as a winchman on helicopters, which he considered was the best job in the RAF! There were two golden rules – the first, that once a winchman was lowered, he was in sole command of the flight, regardless of the relative ranks of the pilot (who might be a Squadron Leader) and the Winchman (who might be a Sergeant).

The second is that the Winchman must never detach himself from the hook during a rescue operation – but this was a rule that he had to break in an emergency, to succeed in rescuing no less than sixteen sailors trapped on a sinking ship in the Wash. Dinty was later awarded the Air Force Cross at Buckingham Palace for this exploit, as well as the American Helicopter Heroism Award at the White House.

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