Veteran pilot's tales of search and rescue day

A Royal Navy helicopter pilot with more than an entire year of flying hours in military aircraft said he just loves to fly.

Lieutenant Commander Andrew ‘Tank’ Murray has clocked in excess of a staggering 8,760 hours in the air – more than any other regular member of the navy.

The 54-year-old’s service includes eight years flying search and rescue helicopters around Scotland and Cornwall – including the Boscastle disaster - five tours of Afghanistan, tours in Iraq and Sierra Leone, as well as deployments around the world, from the Caribbean to Japan to the Arctic.

His list of naval air squadrons includes 814, 706, 810, 820, 849, 771 and 857 with roles in airborne early warning, anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue.

I miss search and rescue. That was the best job I’ve done. It’s almost like being in a war, but not being in a war obviously. We’d be at Culdrose on duty and usually we’d have 15 minutes to get airborne from the call – and we never took that long. Then we’d set off with the most basic information about an emergency.

Lieutenant Commander Murray

“Everyone calls me Tank,” said Lieutenant Commander Murray, who has a dry sense of humour, adding: “I actually have a tank driving licence - but mostly I get the name because I am a big lad.

“As far as I am aware, I’m the only regular in the Royal Navy with this many hours. I just love flying helicopters. It’s like having your own rollercoaster, as you’ve got that freedom in three dimensions.”

Lieutenant Commander Murray joined the Royal Navy as a pilot just before his 21st birthday and has spent the bulk of his career in Sea Kings, having only recently converted to Merlin Mk2 helicopters. He is a qualified instructor and now works as a staff pilot at 824 Naval Air Squadron, the training unit at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, where he shares his experience with the new generation of aircrew.

He said: “When you compare them, they are different aircraft. In a Sea King, you’re much more involved in flying whereas you are more managing the Merlin. The Sea King is better in the hover but not as good at speed.

“My first love will always be the Sea King. I’ve spent enough time in it that it’s like a favourite pair of slippers. The Merlin is more like a pair of new shoes.”

Of all his time in the air, Lieutenant Commander Murray said his years spent in search and rescue were the most challenging and rewarding. He has flown 406 rescue missions over five years with the red and grey Sea Kings of 771 Naval Air Squadron in Cornwall and three years flying from HMS Gannet all over Scotland.

“I miss search and rescue,” he said. “That was the best job I’ve done. It’s almost like being in a war, but not being in a war obviously. We’d be at Culdrose on duty and usually we’d have 15 minutes to get airborne from the call – and we never took that long. Then we’d set off with the most basic information about an emergency.

“Then you’d get there and it’s not what you expect and you’d have to improvise. It’s like a captaincy check where they just keep throwing problem after problem at you.

“No matter the weather, you always go and do the best you can. I lot of the worst jobs, as a pilot, were those in blizzards, again usually in Scotland.

“I remember once, we’d picked up a woman who’d had a brain haemorrhage. We were flying down the valleys towards Glasgow and a sudden snow storm blew up – I couldn’t see more than 40-feet and I couldn’t see the cliffs. I couldn’t go up as there was a danger of icing-up.

“We just had to hover for about ten minutes until it cleared. The nurse we’d picked up said the woman was going to die if she didn’t get to hospital and I said: ‘If we fly anywhere in this, we’re all going to die’.”

Lieutenant Commander Murray also flew the fourth helicopter to arrive at Boscastle in Cornwall, which was devasted by a flash flood in 2004.

“I was at home and was watching all this happening on TV,” he said. “I rang in to Culdrose and asked if we were going and we got an extra crew together. When we got over the village, we checked some of the cars that were washed out to sea and we helped take a woman to hospital.”

He said his flying time has not been without its share of trouble in the air, adding: “I’ve been on fire and I’ve had to make emergency landing after a gearbox oil dump – twice actually. 

“It happened once in the United Arab Emirates in 2018 and we were forced to suddenly put down in the car park of a five-star hotel. The other time it happened, we managed to land at short notice in a pub car park on the Isle of Arran.

“We caught fire once in the Indian Ocean. We were working off Invincible at Diego Garcia and I was doing circuits of the airfield when the control tower came on and said: ‘you do know you’re on fire?’. We had to land quickly.”

“I’ve had every problem you could think of in the Sea King. The only thing I haven’t done is ditch at sea, and I don’t want to be part of that club thank you very much.”

Lieutenant Commander Murray will continue to serve in the Royal Navy until just before his 60th birthday. He lives in Helston with his wife Tania and their three children.