Alexandra's Notebook

Taking a Leap of Faith

Within weeks of arriving at my first posting to RAF Mountbatten, in Plymouth, Devon, I was being encouraged to sign up for, well, everything, including participating in helicopter rescue training exercises. Which wasn’t a stretch, given where I worked, at the RCC (rescue and coordination centre) Plymouth, an Air Force detachment working along side the Navy. They got all the new arrivals to sign up for this in the same way we were encouraged to be dead or injured bodies during Exercises, among other things. But those are a whole other post.

Signing up to do the helicopter rescue was made to sound wildly exciting and something we would receive a badge for doing. A fancy patch made especially for such exercises. Not that anyone told me it was entirely fictitious and a patch we’d never get to wear on our uniform. Nonetheless, wide-eye, I went into this endeavour, like ever other endeavour I got talked into or volunteered for in the next several years, eager as only youth can be.

Now you would think I would have grasped exactly what I was being asked to do, not so. I was completely and utterly unprepared for the reality of being a volunteer.

The event didn’t happen straight away, there was training for those of us gullible enough to sign up. First came the silly 2 hour stint in the gym, where they had us jumping off 10 inch heigh benches up into the arm, legs straight, arms folded across our chests, to have us at the last minute before hitting the floor, star-fish our arms and legs out, to simulate hitting the water, and not sinking to bottom of the ocean.

Reminder. They had us doing this for a solid 2 hours … jump, star-fish, jump, star-fish …

Next came the swimming pool. The volunteers would only go onto the next stage if they passed this one, swimming the length of a 50m pool fully dressed.

I did it. Just.

The third and final training for the volunteers—we were down from 20 by this time, to just 5—had us back in the pool in full-on immersion suits treading water for 15 whole minutes that seemed to last an entire month! I have never been so exhausted, let me tell you. I slept for over 15 hours, so deeply, my room mate couldn’t wake me for work the following day and had to roust the duty corporal to see if I were dead. I wasn’t but I sure as hell felt like it.

If this was just the training, what the hell was the actual rescue exercise going to be like? By now I was suitably terrified.

I didn’t have long to fret over what was coming next, as the first available day I wasn’t on duty I was waiting on the grass helipad in front of the Officer’s Mess, looking at a Wessex helicopter cruising inbound over Plymouth Sound towards my group of 4 volunteers; an officer, a corporal, an airman and, yes, me. The only female.

At this point, there was no turning back, though I had been asked not five minutes earlier when climbing into my immersion suit whether or not I wanted to back out. No one would hold it against me I was told. But, having gotten this far, despite having people say to me, “damn, Alex, you’re crazy,” while looking at me in awe of my innocent stupidity, I’d resolved I was going through with this.

And go through with it I did. I had to be helped up into the helicopter given I could barely stand upright in my suit, and, wearing overly large ear defenders, couldn’t really hear anyone though I saw mouths moving. I took my seat, got strapped in and, stomach churning in panic, felt the Wessex lift, bank, and head out into the middle of the Sound. Watching the waters below fly past did little to help calm my sudden burst of nerves.

I was actually going to do this. The officer got to jump first at the Wessex hover over the thrashing waters below, as he was tasked with inflating the big yellow life raft. Then, in descending order the other two followed. Feet pointed, bodies straight, arms folder across their chests, holding noses if needed, crashing into the foaming water and …

Disappearing from sight. And then, I was sat on the side next to the sergeant relaying instructions, and … I forget everything. I closed my eyes, shuffled to the edge, and fell feet-first into the murky waters below probably praying I’d survive.

I really don’t remember too much in between the panic of trying to stay afloat and swim toward the lift raft, being hauled on board and then, coughing up half the ocean, sitting there with chattering teeth for the next 90 minutes wondering why it was taking the chopper so long to return for us.

Would you believe they went for lunch? I didn’t get this jewel till much later, the following day at work when my CO told me this is what they do. Meanwhile, I was sat cooped up with two guys heaving their guts up over the side of the dingy. Oh the glamour of it all, not.

They did come back for us. And while I was last in, and despite those being seasick, I was hoisted out first. Something I was eternally thankful for. A young man dangling from a hoist attached a harness to me under my arms, and, wrapping his legs about me in a way that would have had my mother asking him to marry me, I got unceremoniously pulled back up into the Wessex. And yes, this is when swaying in the downdraft of the chopper, I decided I needed to throw up … all over my rescuer.

In the end, I got my patch and yes, before you ask me, I kept it in my treasure box for years after I left the military, along with other such hard-earned souvenirs. But more on those another day.