Life on the wire (1967-2003)

Location : Hemsby

Keith tells us about his life as an air sea rescue operator. He was the only person to operate as a winchman, winch operator, radar operator and co-pilot.

I was born in Bournemouth in 1945; after school I went straight into the air force as a Boy Entrant. I had wanted to join as an apprentice, but entry for that was full so I ended up as a ground radio mechanic, doing that for eight years before deciding that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing.

I decided that I wanted to become aircrew, I went to Biggin Hill for the selection process but failed. In ‘67 I was posted to Gan in the Maldives, to repair and service electro-mechanical equipment. Gan itself is an island and is right at the bottom of the Maldivian chain in the Addu Atoll (40 miles south of the equator) . It was the staging post for the Royal Air Force crossing the Indian Ocean. Aircraft came from Bahrain or Muharraq to refuel before going on to Singapore. I was there for a year and during that time I became the Diving Officer for the sub aqua diving club, completing over 650 dives.

On my return to the UK, I attended the selection course for aircrew at Biggin Hill and this time I passed to start air quartermaster training; this later became air loadmaster which better defined our role on the aircraft. I did six years on Britannias, the whispering giant, four engine turbo prop aircraft, going all round the world and completing 3,500 hours flying before the Squadron was disbanded at the end of 1975.

During this time, I met my wife Jennie, she was also an Air Loadmaster, initially on Britannias but transferred to VC 10’s. We married in 1973 and Jennie continued to fly for a further year, this means that we saw very little of each other but did meet up in Hong Kong on two occasions.

I then had to wait for a couple of months to start my Helicopter Air Sea Rescue training at SARTU (Search & Rescue Training Unit) at RAF Valley, initially on the Whirlwind Mk10. On completing the course, I was posted to “A” Flight 202 Squadron RAF Boulmer on  the Northumberland coast. We changed aircraft to Sea Kings in ’78 and I ended up coming to Coltishall on Sea Kings in ’81.

Whirlwinds on the Pan at RAF Boulmer

When we came to RAF Coltishall we lived in quarters initially before buying a bungalow in Tunstead, just north of Wroxham.

The origin of search and rescue

This is a bit of a throwback but it might help to understand how search and rescue actually started off.

It happened in the Second World War. Would you believe that 22,000 Spitfires and 14,000 Hurricanes were built? So, we had plenty of aircraft but it took time to train pilots, especially ones with experience. If an aircraft was shot down and this happened out to sea, with the pilot successfully bailing out you wanted the means to get them back.

That was when the motor torpedo boats and motor gun boats were seconded to go quickly out and pick up the downed pilots. Eventually they used Catalinas (Flying Boat) which could actually land on the water. They could land besides the pilots to rescue them.

That was really how air sea rescue started, our primary purpose being to retrieve our aircrew if in the unfortunate circumstances they had to bail out. The next priority was any Air Incident, after which we would respond to an incident that was inaccessible by any other means or time was of the essence, over land or sea.

Sea King helicopters

Sea King far exceeded the Whirlwind or Wessex, even though it had ‘50s technology it was being updated all the time. It was obviously twin engine but we had auto hover which could be switched over to the rear of the aircraft and be flown by the winch operator using a small joy stick.(Having 10% control of the A/C movement) we also had night capability with NVG, night vision goggles.

Before the auto hover could be engaged, we had the Flight Control System FCS, this allowed us to automatically transition from a normal flight at speed and height to a hover normally at 50ft, this is done over the sea. You have to remember that we went to incidents that could occur anywhere. A normal fixed wing aircraft needs a runway, Air Traffic Control, radar surveillance and approach beacons. With a helicopter we’re totally autonomous in so much that we can let ourselves down in a safe area, we had radar so we could look and see around us to make sure that it was all clear. Invariably we would let ourselves down over the sea in bad weather. This is where we really excelled, we could go out in all weathers.

Over land it was slightly different, we would stay visual with the ground. To do this we would fly low level to stay in contact, this was not always possible. If we had to fly above fog or low cloud, then we would go to the coast, the nearest to the incident, let ourselves down over the sea and come in over the coast very low under the cloud base. We still needed to see the ground as we approached any sort of casualty or incident.

On base we had a crew on 24 hours standby and we had two aircraft at each flight. Initially there were nine flights around the country, when we got Sea Kings that went down to six and these six places meant that the whole country and coastline was covered within an hour. We were on a 15 minute standby during the day and an hour at night, invariably we could be airborne within five, ten minutes during the day and at night even though we were in bed we could be airborne well within half an hour.

We had four crews but once the Falklands happened we went to five because invariably one crew would be dispatched down to do a tour of duty in the Falklands for a couple of months. They were four man crews, so you had a pilot, co-pilot and rad op/winch operator and a winchman which was my role. The rad op/winch operator and winchman could swap over if needed.

In a Sea King, once you get overhead a survivor or an incident the pilot can’t see directly below him, he’s totally relying on the winch operator to talk and hold him in position.

It’s a very specialised speech that is used, you can’t use anything other than key words, for example if you said, ‘Forward, forward one, forward two’ that was a unit – a unit was a metre to two metres which is basically the length of a survivor lying down. If we said, ‘Forward one’ the pilot would move forwards six feet the other key words left, right, back, up or down.

The crew were medically trained in emergency care, we trained at RAF Halton.

We had over five hours endurance on a Sea King so potentially you could have a casualty on board for over two hours. It was important to be able to monitor them, also intubate and cannulate a casualty, to maintain the airway and fluids. I was one of the first to do this and eventually we managed to get all the rear crew on a short course just to do cannulation and intubation.

A helicopter is inherently a very hostile environment with the vibration and noise so it is most important to be able to actually maintain and monitor a casualty and their vital signs. This was always a bit of a problem.

If there was a doctor available at the station and they weren’t busy and we knew that we were going out to a nasty one then we could take them on board and winch them down with the winchman to a deck or a mountain side.

When I was up in Northumberland we covered the Lake District. The next down from us at Coltishall is Manston in Kent and the next one above is Leconfield, just outside Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

We were controlled by the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre [ARCC} all emergency calls requesting assistance would be passed through them.

Initially we had one centre in Plymouth, and another one in Edinburgh but with the introduction of the Sea King that all went to Kinloss in Scotland; anything instantly happening in the whole of the UK would be directed to the appropriate agency.

It all comes under the Department of Transport and still is. Then in 2016 the RAF Search & Rescue Helicopters was disbanded, and it went to Bristow Helicopters, I won’t go too much into it but the reason we lost it was cost. I think it was about 100 million a year to maintain all the flights, the crew and aircraft.

When we went on a shift we didn’t sit around waiting for the bell to go. During the shift we would do three hours training for both rear and front crew. We would do many dry situation winching off cliffs, mountains and mountain flying. We would go out to sea, put a survivor in the water and practise picking them up. We would practise going onto ships of all sizes, we could call up any ship on channel 16 and they would be only too happy for us to go on board and practise winching on them in any weather.

Those three hours every shift would help maintain our expertise in flying and operating in all weather’s night and day.

SAR didn’t go to civilian contractors for so long because no civilian company could guarantee that they would maintain that high level of expertise. Other search & rescue agencies would come from all around the world to see how the RAF did search and rescue, we were without a shadow of a doubt leaders in this field.

Once it was taken out of our hands and went civilian we all backed away, we were disbanded. A lot of the aircrew who were still operational at that time were asked if they wanted to go to Bristow’s and I think about 95% said no!

Air sea rescue at work

One of the first jobs I had at RAF Coltishall was a call from a mine sweeper saying that a seaman had a bulkhead door slam shut on his fingers and amputated a couple of them. And so, the pilots went out to start the aircraft and I waited to get some ice from the Mess in a flask. While I was waiting for the ice, I called to see if there was a doctor available in case we needed a bit more expert bandaging, when another shout came in that an aircraft had ditched.

It was a Wessex, being flown by Bristows, coming back from the oil rigs to Norfolk and this obviously took precedence from the seaman.

An aircraft has a transponder on board that shows up on the radar, the IFF, Identification Friend or Foe. It’s a four digit code, dialled up and it comes up on the radar screen. Coltishall could tell us exactly where the aircraft was and so we went and virtually in fifteen minutes we were overhead at the ditch site.

The winch op and myself were in the doorway, on the right hand side, starboard side, because that’s where the winch is. We looked down and I counted nine people in the water.

I was kitted up for going in the water so we winched out and moved straight in. One thing that I was wondering was, ‘Why is no one waving?’ No one was waving at all. We fly into the wind and hover at 50 feet over the water. I got to the first guy, put the strop on him and was winched in, I still hadn’t figured it out, just thought that he must be unconscious, he was in his dry suit as they all fly in dry suits in case they ditch.

I could see that it was ripped all-round the neck, and now you won’t want to hear this really. Why can I see the sea through his ear?’ Half the head was missing.

I got him onto the aircraft, into the wet area that we had on the Sea King and was winched back out to get the next one. One particular guy was still strapped in his seat, I secured him and undid the seat harness and the weight of the seat took the other guy down, sunk out of sight there was no way I could catch him. In the end I managed to pick up eight people.

Most of them were partially or virtually headless. When we landed and shut down the ambulance crews were waiting for us, we had the door shut but every orifice of the aircraft was spurting red. It looked horrendous.

The press were all there waiting. I didn’t think the general public would really want to see this. So, I got the ambulances to form a corridor and blocked us from been seen unloading the casualties off the aircraft.

What I think happened was, the Wessex pilot is seated up high, and the cabin is another level down. It looked like a double engine failure. The conditions were that it was very hazy and the sea was dead calm, just smooth and so you had no horizon. At that point the Wessex didn’t have a radar altimeter, these normally cut in at 200 feet but they didn’t have this so when they went into auto-rotation, the pilot would have to judge when he reached approximately 50 feet when you’d pull up on the collective and use up the kinetic energy stored in the rotating rotor blades to just land gently on the water. Do this to late or early and you are descending to quickly and hit the land/water too hard.

What happened then was the whole rotor head came down through the cabin and chopped the aircraft up. The divers did actually recover the rest of the people and the engines. What normally happens is that everything goes to the aircraft accident people to determine what went wrong.

Another one which was quite interesting was out of Lowestoft. Colne Fishing Company were operating converted fishing trawlers as rig safety boats. They would go out for three or four weeks and patrol the rigs. There were four crew members, skipper, cook, engineer and deck hand.

I don’t know if you know but off the Norfolk coast you’ve got sand bars all over the place and they’re shifting. We got a call telling us that they had run aground on a sandbank and were taking in water. So, we got airborne and found them, it had a big H on the rear deck but it would have to be a very small helicopter, not a helicopter landing area big enough for a Sea King.

I winched down to the deck and was hanging on to the aircraft as I hadn’t come off the wire. I thought that obviously they would want to come off, as the swell was lifting the boat up off the sandbank and thumping it back down. Each time it hit the whole boat shuddered and whole load of soot came out of the funnel, it was really hitting hard on the sandbar. I thought, ‘How long can the boat take this punishment?’

Then this face appeared in this porthole at the back of the bridge, looked out, then disappeared again. Then finally two guys came up on deck, I asked them if they wanted lifting off. They said yes and we winched them into the aircraft. I went back down on to the trawler. I came off the wire and went to the bridge and said to the guy there, ‘Right, okay, you want to get lifted off?’ and he said, ‘No’ and I said, ‘Why not? ‘I’m not going up there’ he says. This is the skipper and I could smell, ah, okay, they had been on the booze, they really had been on the booze.

So anyway, I asked him again why not and who else was on board; the skipper told me that the cook was but that he didn’t know where he was. He asked if the engineer had been taken up to the aircraft, to which I told him yes, he had. Apparently, the generator was going and the trawler was really taking on water. So, I thought, okay, I had my RAF torch with which was absolutely bloody useless but I went down below to check all the cabins and engine room. I found the skipper, he was in the heads and grabbed a big powerful lamp, great, so we took that down.

As we went down to the engine room, the boat rolled from side to side, the water was just sloshing from side to side and I thought to myself, ‘For God’s sake don’t fall down there’. I checked all the cabins and they were all clear and then there was a shout and the lights went out. The skipper had fallen in the engine room, I grabbed him and pulled him out and I had one soggy skipper, all I really wanted was the light but he had dropped that.

Anyway, I got him up to the gangway at which stage two bulkhead doors opened and this apparition appeared and it was the cook. He’d been flat out in a bunk, I grabbed him and he asked what was happening? By this time, I’d convinced the skipper to get winched into the Sea King. Eventually the cook comes up to the gangway to the bridge, and I had thought that I was ready to lift them up until he said, ‘I’m not going up there’ – at which point the skipper says, ‘Oh well I’ll stay with the cook’.

By this time, we’d been on the scene for well over an hour, so we had burnt 1,000lb of fuel and we were running short. We’d been in hover for a while and I knew that the lifeboat was coming as they, the crew, had called to say that they were on their way, so the Skipper and cook said that they would wait for the lifeboat. But we had stopped bouncing, meaning we were off the sandbar, and now the boat was going down. I told them that I wasn’t staying there so they could make the choice to come up on the aircraft or stay on board and wait for the lifeboat. The last thing you want to do is leave people in that situation but the lifeboat had reassured us that they would be there shortly, which they were. We cleared away and had to get back to Coltishall to refuel.

The only sort of saving grace was that when they transferred to the lifeboat, the cook broke his arm and I thought, that’s justice for you. And by the way, the skipper lost his ticket.

Do we meet the people who we have saved?

Invariably we don’t especially if they have put themselves in the situation through their own stupidity. We have sometimes had letters saying thank you. It’s a funny situation really, what used to happen quite often, was that people used to think that the helicopter was expensive and that they didn’t want to call us out.

It was expensive, an hour’s crew flying for an hour was about £3,500. But it made no odds to us because we had to do three hours training so if we went to a civilian event then we didn’t do those hours of training. We counted that as training, so it made no odds.

One of the things that used to be horrific was inflatables, kids on rubber rings, lilos or little dinghies. If you got an offshore wind and an outgoing tide they can be out to sea in seconds flat.

What has happened in the past is that you’d get the call and you’d go out, find the inflatable but not the child. They would have tried to paddle back, realise that they couldn’t, abandon the inflatable and try to swim back. And that’s when they would drown.

If they had stayed with the inflatable then we could have saved them, but that’s what happens.

It’s happened several times. Of course, us winchmen aren’t going to pick up whatever inflatable it is, we’ve got a knife on us, which we just put through, to sink it.

I know of one incident from a winchman, he got called out, went out, found the child, dropped the child back on the beach. The parents said, ‘Ooh thank you very much, where’s the inflatable?’ Winchman said, ‘Put a knife through it’ and parent said, ‘Oh, I’m going to charge you for that’. ‘Fine sir, charge us for it but if you charge us for the dinghy we’ll charge you for an hour’s flying which is £3,500’ and they’d normally shut up then.

People don’t understand tides, rip currents, coming up from Cornwall where everything was flagged, all bays were flagged, for all the swimmers to stay in. You had the RNLI too.

It’s not too bad round here as you’ve only got two metres tops whereas around Bristol you’ve got 10 metres and Cornwall you’re looking at 10, 15 feet. But really off the Norfolk coast it’s only two, three feet so not too bad. But that doesn’t mean to say that you’ve not got a current, you’ve still got a current going backwards and forwards.

It’s difficult to say what percentage of call outs resulted in us saving someone. Sometimes we’re called too late, sometimes the situation deteriorated and when we arrived on the scene we can’t recover it. Of course, the worst accidents that you can go to is an aircraft accident because invariably an aircraft has come to an abrupt halt, very quickly. If they’re still on board the chances of surviving are virtually nil.

When I came to Coltishall I was replacing David Bullock, he got the George Medal for a rescue. Winchman Dave was called out to an incident involving an American A10 aircraft and the airman had ejected into the sea. They saw him in the sea, still connected to the parachute and Dave was winched down to and connected himself to the pilot ready for lift; it was a windy, gusty old day and the parachute was on the surface, with the downwash it was just enough to lift the edge of the parachute and it came up out of water and inflated.

Of course, the helicopter is facing into the wind, and it inflated behind the aircraft and took off. We can only fly a maximum of 20 knots backwards because if you went too fast you’d fly the tail back into the sea.

So, they flew as fast as they could, we have 245 feet of cable and it can go out 200 feet a minute, but that was not fast enough given the wind speed, the cable went too taut and it snapped. The A10 pilot and winchman were still connected to the chute and were dragged through the water and the dinghies were thrown out of the aircraft, to try to drop them on the parachute to deflate it. They missed and, in the end, they estimated they were dragged through the water for about four miles and both drowned. I was his replacement here so that was a bit sad really.

Throughout the UK we have got four RAF mountain rescue teams, all the civilian teams operate through charitable funds, nothing’s paid for by government. Now that Bristows have taken it over there are 10 stations, they’re flying Augusta Westland 189 and Sikorsky 92s, ten of each.

Mountains can be quite dangerous, obviously not in Norfolk, but I have operated in Scotland and the Lake District. Been on Ben Nevis in the winter, Scafell, Snowdon, all the big mountains.

You would not believe what people will go up a mountain with, flip flops, high heels, you would not believe it.

As soon as the Lake District had the M6 it made it accessible for so many people. They’d get out of the car and ‘Oh yes a nice little stroll’ and go up the mountain, totally unprepared, no compass, no map, no cold weather clothing. It’s unbelievable what some people will do.


I was operational for 12 years and then I went into training at RAF Halton, to do the emergency care training and later on I became a fully qualified paramedic.

I taught at RAF Halton for two and a bit years, teaching our rear crew for search and rescue and our mountain rescue crew. A two week course in the classroom and then I’d pass them on to Oxford ambulance where they would go on the ambulances, not to get hands on, but to get the visual of what the guys were doing by the Oxford ambulance personnel. That’s when I was asked by Oxford Ambulance Training staff if I would like to do the paramedic course. I was given no special favours, if I failed I was off, and that was a month in the classroom and a month in John Radcliffe hospital.

Another friend of mine died – filling a dead man’s shoes again. Jock Menmuir was an instructor at RAF Valley. When they do the final handling test for students they position an instructor to act as a casualty. Jock had been positioned out on a winching area on Anglesey. On there return with the students on board to do the final exercise, they saw Jock face down in the water. They thought that he was playing at being drowned but then they realised that he wasn’t coming up for air. They went in, he was recovered and taken to Bangor hospital, but he subsequently died, of secondary drowning. With sea water, if it gets in the lungs, the body will try to dilute the salt water and flush it out, so you’ll actually get too much fluid in the lungs and that’s what causes secondary drowning.

I was a Combat Service Rescue Officer, so I did our Squadron aircrew emergency escape training, from the aircraft in dry and wet conditions. For the Ditching we would all go to Yeovilton and go in a dunker, and you’d do the dunker very year.

The dunker is an aircraft fuselage, hung over quite a deep swimming pool. It then crashes and turns over and you escape from that underwater, and you’d do that every year. They have different modules of aircraft, Sea Kings of course but also Merlin as that’s the latest helicopter that the Navy is using.

As I was an ex-diver, from Gan, and I was at SARTU, Search and Rescue Training Unit at Valley I was in on the trials for a breathing tube. I don’t know if you remember Thunderball with Sean Connery, 007, with his little sort of breathing tube?

Well we actually ended up with something very similar to that, a lot bigger, the cylinder was about the size of a hair spray canister and had a mouth piece on the top. It would sit in your life jacket, so if you couldn’t get out of the aircraft you could take this is out and breathe from that and swim through the aircraft to find a clear exit.

I was scared on occasion but your training kicked in. The worst was really the North Sea because it’s quite shallow compared to say with the Atlantic. You go out to the Atlantic and you’re looking at several thousands of feet, North Sea the deepest part is 500, 600 feet total and so the swell is short and sharp. On a really bad day you could have 40 foot waves.

If you’re going down onto a small fishing boat and it’s at night, the wind’s howling and it’s absolutely throwing it down with rain, that’s when you think that once you’re over the side, you’re out for number one. But you’re relying totally on the other crew above. The captain who’s flying it, skipper in the right hand seat. Co-pilot basically a systems controller, doing the radio, navigation, bits and pieces. The winch operator, rad op, he’s looking after me on the end of the wire and trying to keep me safe.

On occasion I look back – of course nowadays they have got counselling and all the rest of it, we didn’t have any of that.

If you did a bad rescue or it went pear shaped, nothing you could do, quite horrific, you’d come back and the second crew would take over. You would stand down and then we had our pubs that we’d go to, and so you’d went straight round to the pub and basically, not get totally drunk but you would get it out of your system. If anybody was sort of listening to you they would think, ‘How horrific’ ‘because we’d be making fun of it, that’s the only way you sort of survive and mentally adjust to the situations you’d been in. But sort of making light of it was getting it out of your system, nothing else you could do really.

For the final nine years of my search and rescue career I was flight test crew down at RAF St Mawgan. I would go out with the pilot and I would be in the left hand seat, checked out by the Flying instructors, the QFIs, go in the simulator and practice the subsequent actions for any emergency. Then the two of us would take a Sea King to a flight, drop that one off, pick up the next one for servicing and bring it back to St Mawgan. After it had been serviced It would come out for its air test, we’d test for about a week. I have been very lucky, not only have I been a winchman I have been a winch operator, radar operator and a co-pilot so I’ve operated all throughout the whole Sea King.

Last flight before retirement

When it was my last flight down to St Mawgan they gave me an aircraft and said, ‘Right that’s all yours, but you do have to do a flight test on your way back’.

So, I flew all the way round Cornwall, all round the coast, sort of waving to everybody.

Jennie was working at Lanhydrock so I flew up the avenue at Lanhydrock and flew it all round the house waving to Jen from my last flight. Landed back at St Mawgan, walked away. End of story. Happy, that was it.


I had joined in 1961 and I retired in 2003, after 42 years.

I am a volunteer at the Museum of the Broads where I am an engineer and helm on the steamboat. I’ve got my own boat here as well.

The museum basically gives a sort of idea, concept of the Broads, how it was formed, the windmills, how the Broads were worked, who worked on it, who sailed on it. Of course, yourselves WISEArchive with the wherry men in your book, that really brought it full to life.

Of course, we see silly things going on the water on The Broads. The thing is, it’s so open, to so many people, that they can come here, hire a boat, have no formal training, never been on a boat some of them.

They go out with the boat yard personnel, and if they are deemed reasonably competent after about 15, 20 minutes of tuition, away they go. So yeah, you will see some silly things.

When I was in Cornwall I was part of the National Coastwatch and station manager at Charlestown. When I came here I joined Caister National Coastwatch, I thought that I could use my expertise. I have got my radio licence and I have been on boats all of my life.

We were with Caister lifeboat in their heritage building but the Covid happened and of course that was all shut down and they never let us back in.

We got the National Coastwatch portable cabin, it’s like a little sort of burger bar on wheels basically, but with windows. And we got that at Caister and we applied to Caister Council for a permanent site, we surveyed the coast along Caister beach, right from the lifeboat station right up to nearly California. Identified good sites that we could have a permanent site, put it to Caister Council and they turned us down flat.

And gave no reason really whatsoever. And I thought here we were, we’re giving a free service to the tourist industry for safety, keeping an eye on all your holiday makers along the beach and you’re giving us no help whatsoever. So, I resigned from National Coastwatch. If they’re not interested in us I certainly wasn’t going to be interested in them.

Keith Mursell (b. 1945) talking to  WISEArchive on 15th June 2023 at Hemsby.

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