This is my attempt to write about my life involved with the RAF Mountain rescue mainly in Scotland. A few have managed before me, some have done a fantastic job of it and some have not! I feel this is a unique insight into my life within SAR in the UK and RAF Mountain Rescue Service for 40 years.
Where the civilian teams have a local area they know well, the RAF Teams (who are there primary for the recovery of aircraft that crash in the mountains) come in and assist them all over Scotland. This makes it an incredibly difficult job as the calls for assistance are usually in the worst of weather where local area knowledge is invaluable. A unique training was needed to ensure that we were up to the task. This is the story of the training, the rescues all over Scotland, the effect it had on me, my family and friends.
I found some of the incidents especially the tragedies very hard to write about. This is why this book is so long overdue; I had great problems going over it all in my mind. Yet I owe it to all those involved to try to tell my story.
I hope the other side of Mountain Rescue comes through in this book, the joy of finding someone and saving a life is incredible and after all these years, it still heartens me. I have been heavily involved with many of the families of survivors and especially of those who were killed and still have contact with many to this day. I regularly hear from a family member who wishes to know what may have happened after an accident. The grieving process can take so much time to impact; some take 20 – 40 years to contact.
Mountaineers are in the main very selfish who are driven by their sport at whatever level they achieve, it is like a drug and close relatives and partners, wife’s and husbands sometimes cannot understand what makes us chase these wonderful places.
I hope to help explain why we do it. In these days of changing attitudes, it is still wonderful to know that mountaineers will still go out to assist there fellow man or women who are in trouble, hopefully that will never change. There is defiantly a story here so I am going to try and tell it as best I can. This book is dedicated to my friends and family in Mountain Rescue and the other Agencies past and present. Also to our families who bear the brunt of our addiction and passion and affair with the mountains.
Please be aware many mountain tragedies are brutal I have seen more than most of all over this incredible country it has made a huge impact on me and I will try to tell the story as honestly as I can. There is no way I can mention everyone involved but I hope that this book is the start of some of the journey I have been on and its effect on me and who I love.
David “Heavy”Whalley Burghead Moray
After leaving school there were limited jobs in my own town and I was pretty wild and decided to join the RAF. I had a great upbringing one of 5 kids my father was a minister and I was very close to my Mum. I was hard work being young and a Ministers son and a rebel. It was the best thing I could do at the time. After joining the RAF and training as a Clerk Caterer? I was posted to RAF Kinloss in Morayshire, Scotland in October 1971 a new world awaited me. When the postings came out no one wanted Scotland I did as this was where the Mountain Rescue Team was. That had been my plan as I had seen the wagons in Glencoe as a young lad as my Dad and Mum took me on the hills. It was some journey to Kinloss, which seemed the end of the world in the train and took hours. I was immediately taken by the area and was put straight on duty that weekend working with In Flight catering, rationing the Nimrod aircraft. I was given a quick brief and left to it, this was after a game of cards where I lost all my weeks’ pay.
I never did that again. The job was okay but not my trade really as very little paperwork and I was put on shifts straight away, this meant I got lots of time off and made the most of it. It was awful work a lot involved making sandwiches for the aircrew of the Nimrod aircraft, little thanks and at times treated like dirt by some. A few were good guys and they were looked after, the old adage if you treat people decently they will look after you. Some of the aircrew thought they were the “chosen ones” and should be treated differently, especially some of the officers who mainly lived in a medieval class system that should have been sorted out years ago.
In Catering you saw this system at its worst with the way they were treated in their messes like some top class London club with all the perks, it was awful. I wanted to join the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and went down to the section to meet them on my day off. I was at this time a small 5 feet five, very skinny about 7-8 stones, young lad. They took one look at me and told me to get lost. I was heartbroken but amazed how non – military they were, there seemed no rank but they all looked hard as nails. I later found out that I did not meet the Team Leader but some of the young full time Mountain Rescue staff who worked there.
I vowed to join the team somehow. They team had just completed a huge callout in November the Cairngorm Tragedy where they were heavily involved in the recovery of 6 fatalities 5 that were children from the Cairngorm Plateau. This was Scotland’s worst mountain disaster. Naturally the team were very shaken by this tragedy and were fairly close like a family group and they did not want any other new members at this time. 40 years later I was to interview the young survivor of the tragedy.
None of this stopped me wanting to join and when I met the team leader when he came in to collect the team rations for the weekend exercise I spoke to him. Flight Sergeant George Bruce BEM was the team Leader. George was a small, laugh a minute man, he was as hard as nails, a Physical Training Instructor a Scotsman from Edinburgh, a teetotaller who spoke and led the team like the famous Bill Shankly the Liverpool Manager and a humour like Billy Connelly what an incredible combination.
George immediately took to me and said come out this weekend we are going to Kintail on the West Coast and we will see what you are like. He had a charm and an amazing personality and when he spoke he was so authoritative, the team were all in awe of him, I was over the moon. He was also a fanatic Rangers man and loved the West Coast banter on football and religion which was lost on many of the team. He was also a very proud Scotsman and this is also another great bonus to me.
The RAF Mountain Rescue was founded during the Second World War to rescue aircrew that crashed in the mountains. In these days teams were very basic and proved their worth saving many aircrews from the mountains. It was decided after the war to keep the teams and they were six teams in the UK when I joined in 1972. The majority of incidents teams were used for were for civilian climbers. The RAF Teams at one point were the backbone and founding members of the Mountain Rescue Service within UK. They had a team Leader and 4 full – time personnel, a wireless operator, store man, a motor transport driver and deputy team leader. These were made up of any trade within the RAF and the Team Leader was usually a Sergeant or Flight Sergeant. The rest of the team was made up volunteers from any trade or any rank within the RAF, who in those days had to train with the team three weekends out of every 4 and be on callout apart from leave 24/7.
There was no pay or time off for team members. To join you had to do a three weekend trial or you could be posted to a RAF MR team for 21 days to see if you were up to the job. The majority lasted one day on the hill and decided it was not for them, it was an all-encompassing trial, not only fitness was essential but you also had to show a drive and determination to keep going and also fit in with the team personnel on the hill and socially. This was all after a full weeks work.
I was kitted out with all the gear from an Aladdin’s Cave of a store. It’s to a young climber with no gear was incredible. Yet little fitted as I was the smallest in the team all the gear was for bigger team members. It swamped me but I was so proud of my gear. I was now ready for my first weekend. What would that be like?