Rescue 116 tragedy: Search and rescue veteran says rewards far outweigh the risks

The rewards from the hazardous work of helicopter search and rescue missions far outweigh the potentially deadly risks, a retired winchman has said.

Donal McClement.
Donal McClement.

Cork man Donal McClement, who served with the RAF search and rescue force (SARF) based at RAF Chivenor, on the north coast of Devon, England, from 1977 to 1981, said his thoughts are with Capt Dara Fitzpatrick’s family, and the families of her missing crew in the wake of Tuesday’s helicopter tragedy off Mayo.

He said he has no doubt that the crew of Rescue 116, and their fellow Coast Guard aircrew colleagues who are now involved in the heartbreaking search for the missing men, loved their job and were motivated by a sense of adventure and service.

“They are brave guys. They do a hell of a job. But the rewards far outweigh the risks,” he said.

He said his five years at RAF Chivenor, where he opted to work as a navigator and winch operator as part of a three-man crew on the iconic Westland Whirlwind search and rescue helicopters, were the best five years of his life in terms of job satisfaction.

“We were professional. We trained relentlessly. Sure, there were risks. But you take a risk when you drive a car,” he said.

“There is undoubtedly a sense of adventure that attracts people to this kind of work, and the adrenalin certainly flows during some of the missions.

“But we had a motto that there was no point going out to rescue it you had to be rescued yourself.

“We went out in some hairy conditions. You would be apprehensive, but you would focus, you’d be professional, you would have trained for it and practiced and prepared for all possible scenarios — and that gave you confidence to take the mission on.

“You relied on your training and you relied on your crew. Decisions were made as a crew. And the satisfaction of saving lives was just amazing.”

He said he has no doubt that members of the Irish Coast Guard’s elite helicopter search and rescue team would share his views.

Mr McClement, one of the country’s most experienced sailors who survived the Fastnet Race tragedy in 1979 and who now works as a yacht broker in Cork, said during his RAF career, he never really considered a role with the search and rescue wing until a desk officer asked if he would be interested.

“I never really gave it a thought. It was a role you had to opt for, to put yourself forward for. So I said I’d give it a go,” he said.

“I didn’t realise how tough it would be. The failure rate in training was high but thankfully, I cracked the training.

“And it was a great job, especially from a navigator’s point of view. It was pretty demanding and very exciting, very satisfying.”

He said one mission still stands out in his mind. His crew was tasked to respond to a young girl who went missing while swimming off Cornwall.

“By the time we got on scene, she had been under water for some time. We recovered her, and worked on her for about 20 minutes, got her to hospital, and she survived with mild brain damage,” he said.

“She came to the base to thank us about six months later and that was very moving.”

He said the 1954-introduced Westland Whirlwind helicopter he flew on was very basic, in terms of avionics and navigational and safety equipment, compared to modern-day aircraft like the S92 aircraft which went down off Mayo early on Tuesday.

While he declined to speculate in detail about what may have caused Rescue 116 to fall from the sky without warning, he said it was obviously something sudden and catastrophic, given that the crew didn’t have time to issue a mayday.

He said gearboxes are the “Achilles heel” of helicopters — and that if the gearbox on Rescue 116’s tail rotor or main rotor failed, the crew would have had little time to react, and little or no chance to recover.

He also expressed surprise that the aircraft’s emergency beacon, and the crews’ personal locator beacons, failed to trigger after the incident.

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