Festive Ferret

22 02 2010
Wednesday, December 5, 2007, 06:09 PM GMT

A true story of why I love Christmas. Inspired by Welsh Girl.

Its long I know, but please it needs to be, I don’t want to split it up either because it will push other blogs off the front page.

Definitely my favourite job over the years was the time I worked as an aircraft engineer with 22 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in Fife. This was a Search and Rescue or SAR flight and a wonderfully tight knit collection of aviators and ground crew. The job satisfaction was second to none especially since we were historically one of the busiest flights in the country. 22 operated two Westland Wessex helicopters or as we affectionately termed him (not it), Walter. Of our two Walters, one had to be available to fly within 5 minutes of a call or job, any time day or night. (This changed at a later stage, but that is a whole other and more sinister blog) .

Although set up to cover RAF aircrew recovery, we were attending on average 200 incidents every year. Most of these were civilians who had gotten themselves into difficulty whilst walking, climbing, windsurfing and so forth. Naturally, those folks who survived their ordeal (a high percentage) were extremely grateful and would regularly attempt to thrust large denominations of cash upon the flight by way of a thank you. We would then have to explain that we were a military unit funded by their taxes and not only were they already paying for our upkeep, but their particular emergency gave us good experience. To be truthful, if Joe Public didn’t go getting him/herself into peril every now and then, we would have had nothing to do.

We did however keep a charity jar and if they wished to make an anonymous, charitable donation then we would be very glad to receive. Few people gave nothing and some tried to donate too much, a reasonable donation of between 10 and 20 pounds was the norm. Come October/November time it was the task of the flight charity committee to tot up (usually thousands) and buy a whole load of toys and games. These were distributed on Christmas Day, every year to children who were stuck in the many hospitals which we served. Perth, Edinburgh and Dundee being the main ones, with several specialist units dotted in between.

We could have simply had them delivered to the various wards, but the flight determined that this had no style or panache. So as a spare crew stayed back to cover any possible emergency call with the second Walter, on Christmas morning a helicopter laden with toys and of course Santa, would fly to each of the hospitals and pay a special visit to all the children who would not be at home for the festivities.

A slight detour from the tale at this point, please bear with me. Due to the rapid nature of a scramble from the flight and Leuchars being as busy a flying station as it was (still is), 22 had flight paths permanently reserved as approved headings to leave the area. With all those fast jets coming and going throughout the day it would not be wise to just bimble away from the unit in any old direction and all other air traffic knew to avoid the safe lanes north and south. Most of the good walking, climbing, skiing, water sports stuff could be found to the north so this was predominately the path of choice. Directly on this flight path, near the coast, was a beautiful stone house which the pilots used as an unofficial marker to indicate the end of the controlled airspace. In that house lived a disabled, 12 year old girl and her family. To my eternal shame I forget her name but lets just call her Emily. Emily I am sure was our biggest fan, every time we flew past the house she would notice and write a lovely letter often with illustrations, saying how she had seen us last Tuesday at 11:34 and that our nice yellow helicopter was looking very shiny, we must spend a lot of time polishing it. (In truth, we did). Sometimes the crew would spot her at the window, in her wheelchair as they flew by, or on warm days in the garden and they would give a wave. This of course would set her pen into overdrive. We kept a notice board where visitors could read cards and letters received by the flight and most of them were from Emily, all colourful and wonderfully drawn. As she kept writing we would simply shuffle some earlier ones off the board and onto file (big one) to make space for the new stuff.

It must have been Christmas Day 1992 when this whole heart warming tale took place. Regular sufferers of Ferret blogs will know that I am of the slightly larger silhouette and therefore a good candidate for the important task of standing in for Santa. (Lets face it by that time on Christmas Day he was pretty pooped and the reindeer wouldn’t even lift an eyebrow never mind a sleigh). I find it hard to describe the blend of joy and sorrow experienced in visiting all those sick children that day. All the families in their best clothes around their poorly children trying to have as special a day as they can, faces lighting up when they see and hear a bright yellow helicopter hovering outside their ward and Santa being winched to the ground with a big sack of gifts. The nurses would have an area set up where Santa could sit and speak to each child on his knee of course, and there would always be a smartly wrapped gift for each. Good tip, a well made beard hides tears very well. Then there were the poor kids who couldn’t leave their beds, no problem, everyone knows Santa makes house calls. Some poor tykes were alone, orphans I presume or waiting for distant relatives to arrive, the look of joy on all their faces would melt even the coldest heart. For just a little while, whatever ailed them, whatever pain or loss they had suffered just … went away, beaten by the magic.

By the time the last sackful had been delivered, we were all physically and emotionally drained, it was wonderful I will carry the feeling to my grave and will always remember it with pride and joy. Just when I thought it could not get any more intense the crew had one more job for me.

Our pilot was a cheerful young officer named Robin. He was also one of the more aerobatic chopper drivers on the flight. I was instructed to get my safety harness on and sit in the open door on the side of Walter. So with one hand free for waving and the other clamping my hat and beard squarely to my bonce, I wondered what these flyboys had planned. As we rounded a small wood of tall pines, I saw and realised exactly what they had in mind. There ahead, was the snow speckled, stone house where Emily lived. Robin flew a blinder, sweeping low over the garden and pulling up into a vertical climb, just as Walter lost forward momentum, he would kick over the rudder pedals and let the torque reaction of the rotor blades spin the aircraft until it was facing the ground then accelerating into another low swoop past her windows, Santa and crew waving like eejits, to repeat the manoeuvre. By now Emily, her parents and grandparents were out in the front garden all waving frantically. I thought Emilys’ mum had stood on a live wire she was leaping about so much. Just when I was sure my cup ranneth well and truly over, came stage two of the aircrews’ cunning plan. Robin hauled Walter into the hover directly in front of the house and winched Santa down to the ground, once I was safely detached, they pulled over to some open ground and landed on. After shutting down Walter and giving him a bit of a pat, we all joined Emily and her family for a chat and a big thank you for all the letters, the sneaky so and so’s had even brought some chocolates nicely gift wrapped. We were given every hospitality anyone could ever desire, not least of which the most wonderful drop of stilton I ever tasted and a small snifter of a very decent port. None for you Robin you’re driving.

I will never forget the magic of Christmas I felt on that day, and will always be in the debt of my colleagues for allowing me to be part of something so very special. On the short flight back to the squadron there wasn’t a dry eye on that plane and none of them will ever admit it.

Merry Christmas one and all. (Even RoO)

The Mighty Walter Wessex



One response

19 06 2010

I didn’t realize you had a blog site here Ferret.
Where have you gone? why have you disappeared from Bearsy site?
I think I must have missed something over there. It’s none of my business of course, but you have become a lovely pal and I, along with the others will miss you.

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