A brief history of Royal Navy search & rescue 1915–2015

The sight of a speeding helicopter embarking upon a potentially life-saving rescue mission is today a familiar one, but when were aircrafts first used in such operations?

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In his new book, David Morris, curator of aircraft at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, charts the 100-year history of Royal Navy search and rescue (SAR). He reveals how since the First World War aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service and later the Fleet Air Arm have operated from land bases and ships at sea, flying vital search and rescue missions.

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Here, writing for History Extra, Morris explores the most notable events in the history of Royal Navy search and rescue…

1911

The first documented reference to an aircraft attending an emergency situation would appear to be on 14 August 1911. During an air pageant outside of Chicago on the banks of Lake Michigan, pioneer aviator Hugh Armstrong Robinson was flying his Curtiss Hydroaeroplane (float plane) as part of the display when he noticed that a fellow pilot, Rene Simon, had force landed his own aeroplane onto the lake, some distance from the shore line.

Uncertain if his friend was injured or even still alive, Robinson altered course immediately and flew out toward the scene of the incident. Because Robinson’s aircraft being fully equipped to land on water, he made a safe landing and taxied alongside Simon’s crashed aircraft.

Thankfully Simon was uninjured, and Robinson was able to remain on station with him until a motorboat arrived to recover Simon from the water and tow the pilot and his stricken aircraft back to shore.

Though it was more assistance than a complete airborne rescue, this very early use of an aircraft for emergency support certainly highlighted the potential of aircraft for such a response. The event was all the more remarkable given that it took place only eight years after the Wright Brothers made the first powered and controlled flight.

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Hugh Armstrong Robinson in San Diego, March 1911. © Aviation History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

1915

The First World War saw the development of the aircraft accelerate immensely, with many notable events and firsts being achieved. Among these was the first true record of a person being rescued by an aircraft from a desperate and life-threatening situation.

On 19 November 1915, Royal Navy pilot Richard Bell-Davies was operating in command of No 3 Squadron RNAS, engaged in light bombing missions on Bulgarian targets, close to the Ottoman-controlled European border.

The target this particular day was a small railway junction at Ferijik (now Feres) some 25 miles east of Dedeagach (now Alexandroupoli). During the bombing run, Bell-Davies noticed his fellow airman flight sub-lieutenant Smylie’s aircraft had been hit by ground fire, and was forced to make a crash landing near to the target and behind enemy lines.

Knowing that Smylie was in grave danger, Bell-Davies swooped down and made a one-chance landing on the uneven scrubland near to Smylie’s crashed aircraft. As the Bulgarian troops raced toward the two airmen, Smylie crammed himself into Bell-Davies tiny Nieuport 12 biplane.

Under normal circumstances this would have been a reasonably easy task, but only a few days earlier, Bell-Davies’s aircraft had been converted from a two seat to a single seat model. This meant that the only access to the (previous) forward seating space was now by squeezing head first through a small space under the cockpit control panel, past Bell-Davies’s legs, the control column and ruder pedals and into the tiny remaining space. There were only seconds to spare as the closing troops began to take aim and fire their rifles at the two grounded airmen.

With no sure, clear take-off route, and with Smylie jammed into the forward cockpit space on all fours, Bell-Davies picked the clearest path he could see and roared his aircraft back into the air. He managed to take off over the rough scrubland, where any number of hidden potholes, rocks or branches could have brought disaster to the rescue mission, and successfully flew the 60 miles back to base at Imbros Island.

It is recorded that, after landing, it took considerable time to extricate Smylie from his cramped position, but he was safe and alive, and the first full airborne SAR had been achieved.

Bell-Davies’s post-flight report simply read: “Saw H5 burning in marshes – picked up pilot”. For his bravery he was awarded a Victoria Cross.

 

First World War

With limited technology available, effective ‘in the field’ communication during the First World War was difficult. Communication was restricted mostly to physical message relaying, Morse signals, visual signals (lights and semaphore), and very basic radio communication where available.

Communication in the air was more problematic still, and so on many long-range flights homing pigeons were carried in special lightweight transit boxes in case an urgent message needed to be sent by the crew of an aircraft or airship – pigeons could, with care, be released from the aircraft during flight. This might be with hastily scribbled notes attached to the pigeon’s leg detailing enemy positions (ground and sea), or containing other vital information that the aircraft crew wanted to send back to base.

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British pilot with a messenger pigeon, WW1. © Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo

On long-range over-sea flights in Royal Navy reconnaissance and bomber aircraft such as the Felixstowe F2 flying boat or the Short Admiralty Type 184 floatplane, pigeons were an essential part of the in-flight emergency equipment. Should an aircraft have to make a forced landing at sea, a released pigeon that could get a last location message back to base might be the crew’s only chance of survival.

Such was the importance of message homing pigeons for wartime communication that the admiralty commissioned Royal Navy pigeon lofts at certain air stations, and each bird assigned to His Majesty’s Pigeon Service was issued an official military service number.

1918–1938

At the end of the First World War, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were amalgamated into a new, combined service to be called the Royal Air Force (RAF). The first recognised Air Sea Rescue Squadron (ASRS) was then formed as an RAF unit.

The unit, whose motto was “The sea shall not have them”, consisted of high-speed-powered water craft, as well as seaplanes and flying boats. Many former Royal Naval Air Service pilots and aircrew transferred to the airborne branch of the ASRS, and many RAF crewmen found themselves developing new maritime roles as boat and high-powered launch crews.

As radio technology improved, so too did the potential for immediate and reliable radio communication between aircraft and land bases. With this, distress call “MAYDAY – MAYDAY – MAYDAY” was created (in 1923) for any pilot in an extreme emergency and needing to attract immediate radio attention. The call sign (from the French ‘M’aidez’, meaning ‘help me’) was initiated by Stanley Mockford, senior radio operator at Croydon Airport. Instantly successful, it has remained an internationally recognised distress call to this day.

By 1939 the Royal Navy had retaken possession of its flying branch, retitled the Fleet Air Arm and henceforth the Fleet Air Arm, and RAF have since operated their own individual search and rescue units.

1940

As the Second World War escalated, so too did the amount of aerial combat sorties and general aircraft movements. This saw an increased number of aircraft being shot down or forced to land at sea, and an increased number of shipping casualties, particularly from U-boat attack.

During the conflict the Royal Navy, RAF Air Rescue Squadron and Coastal Command units were responsible for saving the lives of thousands of downed pilots and shipwrecked crews using fast patrol boats. Many new concepts were experimented with, including an ‘air-dropped’ full-sized (32-ft long) self-righting lifeboat.

Released from a suitably modified bomber aircraft and with its descent slowed by six parachutes, the Uffa-Fox lifeboat was capable of saving an entire bomber aircraft crew of up to nine people stranded at sea.

Helicopters are not commonly recognised as a piece of Second World War technology, however, basic helicopters were undergoing Anglo-American trials as early as November 1943 (before D-Day planning had even begun), with a clear emphasis on their potential as maritime search and rescue vehicles.

Such was the success of these early helicopter trials, that both the Royal Navy and RAF had Sikorsky R-4 helicopters undergoing extended trials by 1945, and each had squadrons equipped with the type by 1946.

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The Sikorsky R4B helicopter, photographed in April 1945 during training at an RAF school. (Photo by Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

The age of the helicopter had officially arrived, and the next 70 years would see the helicopter develop into a machine capable of lifting extensive loads and carrying as many as 20 people at speeds of more than 100 mph. The helicopter has been established as one of the most useful and versatile flying machines man has known.

As we turn the page on the first 100 years of airborne search and rescue, I wonder –what will search and rescue look like in 2115?

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David Morris is curator of aircraft at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, and the author of Royal Navy Search and Rescue, A Centenary Celebration (Amberley Publishing, 2015). To find out more, click here.