I was very lucky to serve with Two great mountain Rescue Teams as a team member and a Team Leader at RAF Kinloss and Leuchars. Sadly both are gone now disbanded in 2012 and 2013 and a new Team formed at RAF Lossiemouth which is still going strong. (2022)
RAF Mountain Rescue was formed during the war to assist with crashed military aircraft and the team over the years have been involved in many such incidents. This is the hard part of RAF Mountain Rescue and a bit few know about. The current team is still involved in this task as recent events show. It is not just the recovery of aircrew but also assisting the Air Investigation Board with safety and assistance on mountain and remote aircraft sites – a job they have done superbly. There is an incredible amount of knowledge still within this task and it is good news that the RAF still have a team in Scotland at RAF Lossiemouth.
Both RAF Kinloss and Leuchars Mountain Rescue teams have a huge history as RAF Mountain Rescue did in the early years. Many of the early Call outs RAF Teams, civilian volunteers all played their part. Many of the stories are untold. In these early days there was poor communication on the hill with searchers and gear at the best was basic. Many incidents involved huge carry off by basic stretcher, basic medical skills and of course no helicopters till the mid 60’. Most teams were made up of National servicemen who spent under 2 years on a team. Teams would get called out involving long drives and the families left at home were rarely updated where they had gone to or how long they may be away. They dealt with many tragedies and there was no well being support you just got on with the job. With National Service a few top climbers joined the teams and helped push standards. Of course there was huge learning from incidents like the Lancaster Crash on Beinn Eighe in 1951, Yet we learned from these and involved better training and equipment for teams. There were in these days no Bridges at Inverness, Skye, Glencoe or up the far North travel was slow on poor single track roads. How things have changed. There was no such thing as PTSD in these early days or “well being “ how things change slowly over the years?
Regularly the Two RAF teams would supply over 50 searchers/ rescuers on these huge Callouts. Lochaber, Glencoe and Cairngorms were the usual venues in the wildest of weathers and a lot of young troops were thrown in the cauldron of a wild Scottish winter with little experience. Meeting some of the great characters of SARDA who always impressed me with their efforts often working alone in wild weather.
It was a very testing time especially for many of the young leaders thrown into the cauldron under the watchful eye of some of Mountain Rescue finest. Many things were learned in the heat of a call-out and great advice given by legends like Hamish from Glencoe, Donald Watt Terry Cornfield and the Lochaber boys and Peter Cliff and John Allan from Cairngorms. Every area had its characters like Gerry Ackroyd from Skye and so many others. Of course there was the Glenmore Mafia as well superb mountaineers who we often worked with on the Rescue’s. Many of the Police were also heavily involved in Mountain Rescue it was a wild mix of personalities and views.
Killin had a special place on our team at Leuchars as we were there when the Essex crashed on Ben More. Sadly Team Leader Harry Lawrie was killed that night and two others badly injured. It was a tragic night but the bravery of Killin MR that night will always be with me and others
The RAF teams had to learn about all the areas that we covered and to do this we trained every weekend all over Scotland building up a knowledge of the high priority areas. It is testimony to our training that we had few accidents as you had to train for the wildest of weather as safely as possible. Fitness and navigation were a key and a trial within the team would be a fairly hard apprenticeship lasting several years. It was very hard and many fell by the wayside but those who stuck with it had the time of their lives.
Once the mountain bug hit it became all consuming and the Team became a unique life. It caused huge problems with relationships andat times without a doubt families suffered. These were in the days when we did three weekends away every month travelling all over Scotland on weekend Exercises. Add to that 20 – 30 Callouts a year, courses winter, summer, rescue, first aid the commitments were huge. I worked out for nearly nearly 20 years I was out on the mountains 120 – 150 days a year that does not include Expeditions.
Great days every new recruit to the team had to do a big hill day like the complete Mamores, the Fannichs or North and South Clunnie or other big days. Time did not matter just to show a will to hang in much needed in a Mountain Rescue life and Callouts. many happened after a big day on the hill in the wee small hours – they called it character building before the days of Health & Safety and driving hours!
Lots of time was spent driving at least 3 hours each way regularly more getting to all these magnificent places and gaining unique area knowledge. Great friendships were struck with many keeper, pubs village halls and many romances with the locals all over Scotland. There was the odd hostility with the local team as too many we were always changing personnel but with it came a great energy especially with newer members. At times you had to put the odd star in there place but this happens in any life and Mountain Rescue has its share of egos.
Looking back we traveled all over Scotland so much what was good and what and how various teams did their business, we were always being tested and managed not to let many down. The RAF teams were very fit and though at times lacked in local knowledge and experience many a local Mountain Rescue star got a shock. The odd statement of” give me your fastest troops” for a fast party was a red rag to bull and the troops loved it. The years of the Cold War in the military meant we kept many powerful mountaineers in the RAF many at the top of their game and a few went on to climb some of the worlds great peaks and climbs.
I was privileged to serve with RAF Leuchars and Kinloss Mrt as a team member, Team Leader and then back to Team member for over 30 years. I saw many changes, highs and lows, good days, bad days and sad days but what memories. For all the training we did we had few accidents (thank God) We trained so hard as we too for the job we did it was always difficult explains this to the powers that ruled us.
The training did shape so many lives and out of it can some exceptional people, many who the RAF were lost causes. You could write a book about this alone in the end you had people within the team at all levels who put together became a powerful team.
The word “Team Leader/ Team Building “is now a modern term for Leadership the RAF Mrt had been using the word and the ethos for over 70 years. The great thing was that despite us being in the military on the hill rank played no part at all. It was mountaineering ability and that wonderful phrase ” the mountains have no respect for rank ” is so perfect for putting a young officer or senior officer in their place.
RAF Leuchars MRT closed in 2013 it had a great area and the local Glen Clova is a regular fun spot for the team, but they trained all over Scotland and still do. The Leuchars team was regularly in Glen Coe and worked so much with that legend in Mountain Rescue Hamish MacInnes, who was a great friend of the team over the years.
I was lucky as with a few others we collated all the RAF Kinloss incidents going back from 1944 sadly none of the other teams have this history. What a loss . So I look back on those who gave so much for these forgotten teams and thank them and their families for all the support over the years.
It great still to see the RAF Lossiemouth Team out and about all over Scotland. Doing the sane job as we did all these years ago and giving something back to the local community.
There were so many epic callouts to mention! What was yours?
The final words of my pal Willie MacRitchie Team Leader he sums it up so well.
“The troops never change
The equipment and gear does
The management does
The rules do.
But the hearts are still the same.
Big, caring and proud of their heritage”
RAF Kinloss no more
RAF Leuchars no more.
There is an annual Reunion at Newtonmore every November where many meet. Please get in touch if you can and maybe come along message me for details.
Thanks to all