Five Royal Navy aircrew from the search-and-rescue station at HMS Gannet have received bravery awards for their part in rescues, including plucking stranded climbers to safety.
The operations for which the men received medals included two on Ben Nevis. A quarter of HMS Gannet’s 20-strong search-and-rescue air contingent received awards for skill and gallantry during difficult rescues.
The base, on the edge of Prestwick Airport, provides search-and-rescue cover across 254,000 sq km (98,000 sq miles) of northern Britain, stretching from the Lake District as far north as Ben Nevis.
Lieutenant Commanders Martin Lanni and Martin Ford were honoured for the rescue of three men trapped on a ledge on Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis in May 2007.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “Out of reach of mountain rescue teams, under cover of darkness and in the teeth of a blizzard, the four-man crew of the helicopter worked for more than six hours to execute this rescue.
“Forced off the mountain four times to regroup, they doggedly returned to the rock face, determined to ensure that no lives were lost. After plucking the three climbers to safety and aware too of a dropping fuel gauge, the team returned twice more to lift 12 members of the mountain rescue teams to safety.”
Lt Cdr Lanni received the Air Force Cross and his colleague the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in the Air. Lt Cdr Ford already held the Air Force Cross for his part in rescues during the Boscastle floods of 2004.
The second Ben Nevis rescue also took place on the mountain’s north face. The spokesperson recalls the operation for which Petty Officer Darren Craig received the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in the Air: “[It was awarded] for winching down to save two climbers stranded in perilous circumstances at Tower Scoop on Ben Nevis s – a notoriously hostile area of the mountain – in February 2008.
“One climber had slipped and fallen 60m (200ft) down a sheer ice wall and was secured by only a single rope which was still attached to his partner. Below him was some 1,065m (3,500ft) of fresh air.
“Because of the man’s proximity to the rock face, it was necessary for the helicopter to maintain a high hover to ensure no contact was made with the mountain.
“As a result, Petty Officer Craig was winched down on 45m (150ft) of cable – a very tricky manoeuvre which immediately placed him at considerable risk. As a paramedic, Petty Officer Craig was able to determine that the climber was probably suffering from fractures to his upper leg and arm, and he was aware the casualty was also extremely frightened.
“Despite the grave danger to himself, Petty Officer Craig selflessly pursued this rescue, sustaining injuries to himself from the jagged rock face, and finally managing to get the terrified climber and his partner into the helicopter and thus to safety.”
Lieutenant Mike Paulet was also awarded the Air Force Cross for his part in the joint operation, mounted with crews from RAF Valley in Anglesey and the Belfast Coastguard, to rescue the crew of the stricken ship MV Riverdance in January last year.
Leading Aircrewman Kevin Regan received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his part in the Riverdance rescue and for plucking a violent man under the influence of drugs from the waters of Loch Long in Argyll.
HMS Gannet’s commanding officer, Lt Cdr Bryan Nicholas, said: “This must be just about unheard of – such a high proportion of a unit amassing such a large clutch of honours at the same time.
“I really am incredibly proud of these men and the dedication and determination which they have shown in the face of substantial adversity.
“All the rescues were very different, but one thing they had in common was that they saved lives and risked their own to ensure that the outcome was positive.”
The Royal Navy base in Ayrshire is staffed by 110 personnel which include maintenance and engineering workers, administrative support and meteorological support. The aircrew are on call 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year, providing the Navy’s only rotary wing craft north of Somerset.
Flight Lieutenant Lee Turner of RAF Valley was also awarded the Air Force Cross for his part in the Riverdance rescue and his winchman during the operation, Master Aircrewman Richard Taylor the Queen’s Gallantry Medal.