Dave Lassam - Rescuing a pilot

Running time
4 min 33 sec
Date made
Place made
Department of Veterans' Affairs


We had several fixed wing and some helicopters. The fixed wing were the A4 Skyhawk which are the fast jet and if you have seen Top Gun, the original one, the chase units that they fly are Skyhawks, and they were that good, still very good enough to fly with the bigger jets. So we had those, we had the Grumman trackers, which are anti-submarine, their wings folded up so that they could be taken down into the hangar deck, not take up too much room.

We had Sea King helicopters, they've been around forever, and Wessex helicopters at the time. So they're the little bumblebees, they are pretty big, but look like a big bumblebee. So we had both fixed wing, which required a catapult to fire them off the front, and the helicopters which flew helicopter stuff, anti-submarine and would protect the jets as they took off.

They would fly to the side of the ship in case something went wrong and they could rescue the pilots within minutes, and that happened, I was there for one of those when that happened. So, as usual, as we said, the medic has to watch what goes on and it can be as boring as boring, boring, and this was in the middle of the day and I was standing on a position on the ship, where there's a large thing called the beast, and it's a crane, an articulated crane, so that if something does crash and we have to get it off the deck, it can be picked up, and chucked over the side in hurry, and it's usually done in a wartime situation where you need the deck cleared.

And it was a safe place to stand and the wheel was high enough that you can just rest your chin on the wheel, and you'd watch the plane, you watch the sequences that came through, the guys would wave them in and the plane would move up and the thing would come up with the back and they wind them up and give them the blanket push a button and off they'd go.

And this particular one, I was watching it, and at about two thirds of the way through the thing I suddenly realized something's gone wrong. Without winding the plane up, so there's no real thrust, he's just idling, the catapult fired. So it's dragging the plane forward and you can tell the bloke in the cockpit was not happy because he was standing on the brakes, because there's smoke just pouring out of the rubber and, of course, my adrenalines suddenly gone through the roof thinking, "Oh, this is not gonna end well".

And just as the nose wheel dipped over the front, there was a loud explosion and the deck was covered in a yellow smoke and because the ship was moving forward, obviously we don't have to move into the wind, the smoke quickly cleared. But I heard two bangs. The first bang was the ejection seat going off. The second bang was the canopy hitting the deck.

And then there was a splash. And, of course, everybody, klaxons are going off, everybody had gone into, not panic mode, but reaction mode. I've gone and grabbed my stretcher and I'm standing by. The helicopter that I was talking about before was flying off the port quarter and they came alongside to where the plane was. Now the plane was actually, had turned over and was upside down and the poor old pilot's parachute was going down and it tangled around the wheels.

So he's in the water with the plane that's gonna go down and everybody's thinking, "Oh, this is going to be … " Anyhow, the diver who's always in the helicopter, he jumps out, cuts the guy out of the thing, gets him, winches him into the helicopter comes across to the ship. I'm ready with my stretcher, we load him in, quick check to make sure he's not bleeding or anything like that, talk to him, he's okay, picked him up, went to the forward lift.

So in our carriers, the lift well is in the middle of the deck, as soon as we're ready to go ding, ding, ding, down we went. And the sick bay's position is right in front of it for this very reason. You open the door, you walk through and 10 feet, and you're in the sick bay. So the timing of the entire thing took like three and a half, four minutes, if that.

Bang, bang, bang, it just went off like clockwork and as soon as I'd handed the patient over, "Right back up on the flight deck." And unfortunately, I think we had to end fixed wing flying because the catapult was broken. something had gone wrong inside but we still fly helicopters. But that woke me up in a big hurry. It was very exciting but the training just kicked in and you just knew what you had to do.


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