The Royal Navy’s helicopter rescue crew from HMS Gannet was forced to battle strong winds and extreme turbulence to evacuate a Bute hospital patient from Rothesay to Paisley.
The airlift, on Saturday, December 14, was one of six rescues in six days for the Prestwick-based Sea King helicopter crew.
Corresponding with the peaks of the worst conditions, the six calls spanned three days – Saturday (December 14) when the winds reached storm force, and Wednesday and Thursday (December 18 and 19) when the west coast was again gripped by strong gales.
Saturday’s duty crew experienced storm force conditions when they responded to two call outs – the first to complete a medical transfer from Islay to Glasgow in the morning, and the second, again a medical lift, from Bute to Paisley.
The Islay call-out was in daylight, but by the time they were scrambled to the Rothesay call, it was dusk and they knew the bulk of the job would be in the dark.
The wind had strengthened and the rain was torrential. Despite Bute being quite a short hop from HMS Gannet’s Prestwick base, flying conditions were very difficult and they battled extreme turbulence in 60 knot winds.
Both transfers were successfully completed, the first lasting just over two hours, the second just one hour and 45 minutes.
While Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were not exactly calm, the helicopter did have some reprieve. But on Wednesday the conditions deteriorated and dire warnings of storm surge, damaging winds and driving rain were widespread.
Shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning, the duty crew was called to make the emergency medical transfer of a seriously ill man from Stornoway to Glasgow.
Scrambled at 12.35am, the helicopter also carried two medical experts from the Emergency Medical Retrieval Team based in Glasgow with them to Lewis. It was a challenging and protracted journey north using night vision goggles and a heavy reliance on radar navigation – the helicopter was unable to climb to any great height due to the risk of freezing.
Conditions on the ground in Stornoway were so difficult – 65 knot winds – that the helicopter was unable to shut down after landing for fear that, had they done so, they would not have been able to start up again and they refuelled ‘rotors-running’.
The casualty and medical staff were delivered back to Prestwick at 6.25am for road transit in a waiting ambulance to Glasgow after a long flight into the storm-force headwinds.
And on Thursday, with winds still challenging, the crew responded to three calls – the first at 2.30pm to conduct a search in the area of Loch Long after an empty kayak was discovered washed up near Finnart Ocean Terminal.
Working alongside teams from both the Ministry of Defence Police’s Clyde Marine Unit, as well as Helensburgh Coastguard Rescue Team, HMS Gannet searched for an hour with nothing found. It was confirmed later that the kayaker had not be missing, was safe and well, but had, in fact, lost a kayak.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “HM Coastguard has now produced a free ID sticker which owners can use to write their contact details on and stick on their canoe or kayak.
“We recommend that you clearly mark your canoe or kayak with your name and contact details so that if it is lost, stolen or abandoned we can contact you to make sure that you are safe. This will save a lot of time, and could give us extra information we need to help you if we believe you’re in difficulty at sea.”
At 9.25pm with high winds once again an all-to-familiar feature, the crew was airborne again - this time returning to Rothesay to medically transfer a patient to Paisley and, during their return to base, was retasked to search for a missing person in the water at Ardrossan.
After beginning a search, the missing person was found by the police.