With the civilianization of UK SAR fast approaching, Lloyd Horgan takes a look a look through the varied history of the iconic search and rescue (SAR) squadron, 771 Naval Air Squadron (NAS).

771 NAS’s lineage can be traced back to the eve of World War 2, where they formed as a Fleet Requirements Unit at Lee on Solent flying a variety of fixed wing aircraft. Whilst there the squadron took part and carried out various exercises with ships and provided targets for naval air gunners. 1945 saw the squadron received the Hoverfly helicopter, making 771 the first naval air squadron to operate rotary-wings. By August 1955 the decision had been made to disband 771 NAS and combine them with 703 NAS to form 700 Naval Air Squadron.

Two 771 NAS Sea King Mk5s on the dispersal at RNAS Culdrose and a 'bagger' ASaC Mk7 Sea King.

1961 saw the squadron reform as a training and helicopter trials squadron using the Westland Whirlwind, Dragonfly and the Wasp prototype at RNAS Portland. During their time the squadron pioneered many search and rescue techniques such as cliff winching and hi-line transfer amongst others, it was only natural then that the squadron took on the SAR commitment at RNAS Portland using Westland Whirlwind HAR3.s. Three years (1964) after reforming it was once again time for the squadron to be absorbed into another, this time it was 829 Naval Air Squadron.

Another three years later (1967) and it was once again time for the squadron to reform and again taking the SAR commitment for RNAS Portland, however this time the squadron also had a new task of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). At this time they were equipped with nine Whirlwind HAS.7 helicopters up until 1969 when the Westland Wessex Mk1 entered service with the squadron. In September 1974 the squadron relocated to RNAS Culdrose, where they are still based today. 

771 NAS Wessex as a rescue swimmer/diver launches himself into the water. Copyright of the Royal Navy/MOD.

771 NAS Wessex as a rescue swimmer/diver launches himself into the water. Copyright of the Royal Navy/MOD.

771 NAS Sea King Mk5 as the crew demonstrate a 'put out' over the ocean.

The Falklands conflict meant that the squadron’s aircraft were utilized for troop transport roles, however 722, 847 and 848 Naval Air Squadrons operated them with the crews from 771 NAS returning to their previous aircraft type or to the Lynx and Wasp fleets. Thus meaning the RAF assumed the SAR commitment until 1982 when the squadron received two Wessex Mk.5s from Wroughton, allowing SAR commitment to be returned to 771 NAS from the RAF.

It was in 1988 that 771 NAS received their now iconic red and grey Westland Sea King HAS.5s helicopters, however the HAS.5s were quickly converted to HAR.5s meaning the squadron could now perform long-range day/night and all weather SAR missions – for which they are famous today. 27 years later and 771 NAS still operate the Sea King, a real stalwart for the Royal Navy.

771 NAS Aircrewman reaches out for the grab handle as the winch operator brings him back up to the aircraft. 

771 NAS are now responsible for the Western Approaches that encapsulates the Cornish peninsula, Isles of Scilly and the Atlantic/Channel to a distance of 200 nautical miles.
During the day an aircraft can be scrambled for an emergency callout within 15 minutes and 45 minutes by night, with two aircraft available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The second aircraft is used either as an ‘air spare’ should there be a problem with the on call aircraft or to be used in a rescue with the on call aircraft should the emergency demand it. They still retain a link of sorts to their anti-submarine warfare days (ASW) as they retain the responsibility for advanced and operational flying training for ASW pilots and Observers, plus pilot conversion courses. 

The cockpit of a 771 NAS Sea King Mk5, no MFDs to be found here! The RH pilot in command is practicing IF (instrument flying) and simulating bad weather conditions. 

They have remained one of the busiest SAR units in the UK with an average of 200 callouts each year, ranging from mariners in distress to holidaymakers, relying on the SAR skill set that the squadron pioneered back in the 1960s. 771 NAS can often be called out to perform patient transfers throughout the West Country. During the squadrons time as an active Search and Rescue unit they have taken part in some of the UKs most daring and risky rescue missions, one of the most famous being the 1979 Fastnet yacht race, which ended in disaster. Some 303 yachts took part in the ocean race and of those 5 were sunk, 100 suffered knock downs and 77 rolled due to the high winds and as quoted from the BBC “A great fury at sea”. A huge interoperability operation was launched including Royal Navy Ships, Royal Air Force Nimrods, Dutch warship and of course 771 NAS, the Royal Navy helicopters managed to rescue around 100 people. So it is only natural that the list of individual honours makes for inspiring reading, the list features 4 George medals, 3 Air Force crosses, 7 Queens Gallantry medals and 14 Queens’s Commendation for bravery awards.

Pilot, winch operator and aircrewman all pictured in one photo as they conduct winching ops with a civilian vessel off the coast of Cornwall. 

The future for UK search and rescue still remains fairly unclear, especially for the general public. For so long the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have performed and provided an invaluable SAR effort, so Bristows certainly have a major task on their hands. January 2016 will see 771 NAS finally hand over the SAR commitment for the Western Approaches to Bristows, a sad day indeed as the iconic red & grey Sea Kings finally end their days.