It was about 0330 on a June morning in the Scottish Highlands. We were scrambled around midnight and had been flying ever since, searching for some missing climbers in the mountains just west of Glencoe. I was captain and 1st pilot of the duty Search and Rescue (SAR) SeaKing helicopter from 819 Naval Air Squadron based at Prestwick in Ayrshire. I also happened to be Commanding Officer of the Squadron and was about half way through a fantastic tour, with a really top-notch bunch of girls and boys in the Squadron who were also supporting us at HMS Gannet.

I will have to check my log-book for the exact date (I think about 1998) and crew but, sadly, it is in lockdown at work and I am writing this from home due to the current situation with Coronavirus.

We had been searching for a couple of hours in the dark using our searchlights to hover around the mountain, while co-ordinating our efforts with the local Mountain Rescue Team (MRT). This was before the days of night vision goggles! The time eventually came when we had to divert for some fuel, so we climbed to safety altitude to exit the mountains and performed a ‘self let-down’ over the sea near Oban in order to get into North Connel airfield, which is conveniently situated right on the coastline.

There were (and possibly still are) several SAR fuel dumps around remote locations in Scotland for jobs precisely like this, whereby we could land the helicopter next to a large chacon container which had a quantity of aviation fuel inside. We carried the padlock key with our kit, the idea being to plug the aircraft power into the pump and fill her up with a hose and nozzle in exactly the same way you’d re-fuel a car. The only problem was that you had to get pretty close to the chacon, as the hose pipe was not that long and the re-fuelling point on the aircraft was just below the back door.

I came to a low hover next to the container and was guided right and down by the Observer in the back door, so that we landed as close as we could, ready for the re-fuel. We then stopped the rotors, shut the engines down and all got out to stretch our legs (the SeaKing can be an uncomfortable beast when strapped to your back for four hours). After about 30 minutes and with the re-fuel complete, I did a quick walk around to make sure all was well. I suddenly realised, in the grey twilight of a Scottish dawn, that the main blades were overlapping the chacon by about 3 inches, with about a foot spare above it.

For those that have never started a helicopter, when you engage the main rotor blades to first start them spinning, you can get a thing called ‘blade sail’, whereby as the blades move slowly they can oscillate a bit in the vertical plane until they get enough momentum to behave normally. It quickly became obvious to me that there was a real risk that at least one of the blades would strike the steel chacon, something we simply could not risk as it would entail a deep engineering inspection and we had an unfinished SAR job to return to.

After a bit of head scratching, we decided to all gather around the wheel sponsons and push her forward about ten feet, so the blades were clear of the offending chacon. I jumped into the cockpit to release the brakes, then jumped back out to help push her forwards. Now, you may think that it would be difficult to push ten tonnes of SeaKing but, after much grunting and heaving, she started to roll forwards and we all stood up to congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

That was when I realised that the runway at North Connel has about a 3-degree slope. Downwards. Towards the end of the runway and sea thereafter. With visions of her disappearing into the sea and my career coming to a crashing halt, I was the first to react and ran after her – not easy dressed in survival suit, lifejacket et al. Obviously I managed to get into her, jump into the seat and get the brakes back on, or I wouldn’t be telling this story now as a retired senior officer. I suspect it would also have been fairly embarrassing for me as the Commanding Officer had the aircraft carried on down the runway!

That is the true story of the runaway SeaKing. For those that understand ‘Jack-speak’, this is a true dit, and a gen dit. I think it is also a good dit and, had it not gone the way it did, the subsequent ‘Tugg’ cartoon would have told a very different story…

Navy Wings CEO, Jock Alexander