The changes over the years in Mountain Rescue and the introduction of a fast party for deployment by helicopter changed a lot of our protocols. In the RAF Mountain Rescue. Things changed we could be flown all over Scotland to aircraft crashes or mountain incidents many far from our base. You had to be self sufficient and cope with st least a night out.
It became a “ 30 minutes to get your life together” in the RAF with the Mountain Rescues we were often involved in a helicopter picking you up or at Base or the hill became a common event . It meant you had to be ready at all times. I had a huge involvement in one incident. It was in early winter December 7 th 1982. I had been working a 12 hour shift, it was winter snowing at sea level in Morayshire and I had just got back to the Accommodation Block at RAF Kinloss. The phone rang I picked it up it was the ARCC at Pireavie saying a F111 USA fighter had crashed in Skye very basic somewhere on the main ridge more information later. It’s was just after 7 pm there had been snow at sea level, the forecast was poor. The aircraft was flying with state of the art gear mist if it was classified. The cloud base was down with little chance of clearing till next day. Add in the snow forecast we would be on our own!
What do you take – The Helicopter will be with you in 30 min (or less). In that short time you have to change into hill kit, grab radios and any kit you think you will need. Your brain is on fire you grab the troops in the accommodation and a driver to take you to the aircraft pan. The aircraft can only take 4 plus my dog Teallach. It’s a rush to sort out gear I am the party leader my decisions are the ones on group gear. Not easy add it’s dark and winter and you are heading for Skye and it’s incredible mountains
You can only carry so much – There are no mobile phones, GPS and our radios are basic. We took 3 radios plus spare batteries, Sharks eyes torches, ropes and I had all the climbing gear. To make room I ditched my sleeping bag( looking back a daft move ) and had a small duvet. Add to that full winter gear personal head torches, harness, helmets etc our rucksacks are full. The clock is ticking the helicopter is on its way it will be with us in 5 min. Let’s go no time for anything else. Arriving at the aircraft pan the gritters are out on the runway it’s a bad forecast. It’s a rotors running pick up into the darkened helicopter and as the leader I get headphones and we take off. The crew are great brief me on the updated weather and say we may not get to Skye as the forecast is awful. These are great people and will push out the boat to get there. The Sea King had no night Vision capability then.
The flight in – I am know up front in the helicopter the troops asleep in the back in the dark I pass all the information that is coming in via the ARCC to them by a note. It’s an USA F111 that’s crashed in Skye ( we had all ready been to one a few months before in Strathconnon where the crew survived) This was always on my mind as the aircraft cockpit is ejected like the Space Capsule and floats down by parachute. This was our job the Rescue of aircrew we were all aware that. That was a long flight in with everything changing as more information became clear!
The weather – The weather started ok with the odd flurry of snow we passed the lights of Inverness and headed over to Skye. The weather got worse and we got caught in a heavy blizzard and landed in a white out in Achnasheen. It was touch and go we waited as the weather went through and headed over to Skye. The crew were busy flying and updates coming in. The information we got was that the aircraft had crashed on Sgur Na Stri to me I had to look at the map it was near loch Coruisk and was reminded of it from a past walk. We also could hear Skye MRT calling they were at Elgol offering assistance.
A near Miss – The weather got better and we tried to pick up some Skye MRT then the blizzard hit again and visibility was awful. I think I was at the door helping the winch man when he saw the Hydro wires and we had to pull all our power to get away from them.
Landing – The pilot explained that he had limited time and asked me for a safe place to land I said Camusunnary as it’s very flat we headed out to sea and arrived at Camussunary. As we left the aircraft we were told we were on our own now till they could get more assets in the helicopter was going to Broadford As it had a small airport to be assessed. We left the helicopter as it vanished we felt very small even here. Then we saw the bothy door open out came what to me looked like a ghost. There were three lads one was to became a lifetime pal Paul Rosher staying in the bothy and thought the Cold War had started!.
Paul came with us up the hill until we hit the main wreckage I did not want him to experience the tragic scenes we may encounter. It was an epic climb to the site with debris everywhere the smell of aircraft fuel, the loose rocks and the river making things extremely tasking.
Sadly we located the crew later that night not a nice experience. I was sure we would find them alive when we discovered them there was no hope of survival my reserves crashed. I had so much on my mind but had to stay alert there were so many dangers about . The boys were tired a couple running on empty. a crash site is a dangerous place to be with sharp metal and fuel everywhere. Add on the trauma and we were soaked and cold. There was not option but to stay where we were despite the remote location we had to secure the crash site. We had a terrible bivy and never got any communications with anyone despite me trying all night. I walked about all night with my dog trying to stay warm it was heavy sleet now. With no communications we only got a radio reply in the morning. The rest of the team came on by road they had a long journey from Kinloss arriving late at night. We did not get relieved till midday it was a long cold wait. We were soaked the everything was wet and we needed a hot drink. I was exhausted. During the long hours in the wet darkness I thought of the crew and their families. The tragic news they would receive and how their lives would change.
The rest of the story is in my blog! I was never so glad of seeing the sunrise over a snow covered Cullin on the early morning light.
Lessons learned: so many ? After this we had gear that we may need for a fast party handy in grab bags and as communications got better mobile phones and GPS arrived things got better. We got descent bivy bags after that but every call out is different and you have to adapt to the challenge. Over the years things have adapted.
Post Crash Management / Health & Safety – Nowadays we would have all kinds of Health and Safety protocols, masks and suits etc. You can have all the gear but at times you will have to carry all that up a mountain with limited access in winter is a very interesting proposition? in the end we coped and learned lots for future years.
This article is dedicated to the crew and families Maj Burnley Rudiger, 37, and Lt Steven Pitt, 28, died when their F111 fighter bomber went into Sgurr na Stri, a small hill on Skye, on 7 December 1982. Sara and Steven accompanied us to the site a moving day, one I will never forget.
A big thanks to Al Tait, Joe Mitchell. And Keith Powell (RIP) and Paul Rosher who we met in the bothy At Camusunary and came up the hill with us. A special thanks to Adrian Trednall who visits the site regularly and took the son and daughter to the crash site with myself a few years ago.