Culdrose fliers and family remember Sea King tragedy 50 years on

Topic: Community Storyline: RNAS Culdrose

Royal Navy sailors and family members gathered on cliffs in Cornwall to remember the crew of a Sea King helicopter which crashed 50 years ago.

A short service was held at Beagles Point on the Lizard Peninsula where on the night of March 21 1974 the helicopter collided with the cliffs, killing all four crew.

Those lost were Captain Kenneth McDonald, aged 25, of the Royal Canadian Navy; Sub-Lieutenant Robert Stephen Johnson, 24, from Edinburgh; Sub-Lieutenant Edward Wild, 22 from London; and Leading Aircrewman Brian Sharpe, 27 from Peterborough.

All served with 824 Naval Air Squadron - still based at nearby RNAS Culdrose, though today the Merlin Mk2 has replaced the Sea King.

A memorial was erected at the crash site, then restored five years ago with a plaque added,  and served as the focal point for anniversary commemorations.

Culdrose’s chaplain the Rev Raphael Duckett led the act of remembrance, while bugler Sub-Lieutenant Chris Harris of HMS Seahawk’s Band sounded the Last Post.

Wreaths were placed on the monument by the family of Leading Aircrewman Sharpe, including his brother Peter Sharpe and the aviator’s daughter Pamela Puncher.

“When I thought what it might be like to be here today, my first thought was that it might be windy… not very prosaic perhaps but actually it’s quite a deep-rooted metaphor for me and a remembrance that takes me all the way back to this day in 1974,” Ms Puncher said.

“That night, when these wonderful young men that we’re here to honour and remember tragically left us all, there was a piercing wind. I was eight years old and I awoke in the middle of the night feeling cold. I came out of my bedroom into the hall of our bungalow in Trenethick Parc in Helston.

“The front door was open. A policeman stood in the doorway and the wind blew in wrapping my night dress around my legs and making me shiver. I remember my poor grieving mum, Valerie, sitting with friends. They were all crying. She held my hands and asked me to be brave.”

She continued: “We are not here bound by sadness and loss, that is just the consequence of the love we felt. We are all of us bound together by love; our love for them and their love for us and now thanks to this memorial these wonderful young men who died in service of their country can be remembered always by the many people who will stop and read about them, not only by those that loved and lost them. So finally, on behalf of all the families, to Brian, Kenneth, Robert and Edward I say, we love and salute you all.”

Also attending the service were local residents, members of Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency as well as Major Justin Lystiuk of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The service ended with a flypast by a former Royal Navy Sea King helicopter, now operated by HeliOperations at Portland, Dorset, accompanied by a modern-day Merlin Mk2 helicopter from 824 Naval Air Squadron.

Commander Chris Jones, 824’s Commanding Officer, said it was his duty not merely to look after the squadron’s currently family, but also remember those who had gone before.

“This event is something we continue to remember, and I’ve been really pleased to see some of the younger people on the squadron come down to Beagles Point to maintain the memorial. They recognise the importance of what this means to us all.

“What we do in the Royal Navy is inherently dangerous. At 824, we train people to fly at very low level, often at night, and sometimes hundreds of miles away from land in the north Atlantic. We mitigate the risks with our equipment and training. That’s as true today as it was in 1974. We do everything we can to try to make sure a tragic event such as this does not reoccur.”