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The BBC stages and films a Royal Navy helicopter rescue

Posted in Adventure, Aviation, Communications, Historical articles on Thursday, 27 June 2013

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This edited article about a BBC outside broadcasting unit originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 306 published on 25 November 1967.

Sea rescue, picture, image, illustration

Sea rescue

“And now, live outside broadcast cameras go to sea. In a few minutes we shall be joining our mobile unit on board one of Her Majesty’s most modern aircraft carriers – H. M. S. Bulwark – which is at present steaming at speed somewhere in the English Channel . . . ”

BBC Television Service, July 1955

Several hundred yards from HMS Bulwark a tiny, round, yellow, rubber dinghy bobbed up and down. Berkeley Smith, adrift in mid-Channel, sat waiting for the helicopter from the 20,000-ton aircraft-carrier Bulwark to rescue him. And he had plenty of time to wonder why on earth he’d agreed to take a leading part in this ‘live’ television programme. What if things went wrong?

“It was the first time the BBC had put outside broadcast cameras on an aircraft-carrier at sea,” Smith explained to me. Until 1955, the transmission of live pictures from a ship at sea had only been a remote possibility – if it worked, it would be something of a technical marvel.

Viewers at home ‘went aboard’ HMS Bulwark to watch the carrier’s aircraft taking part in operational exercises during a Fleet exercise off St. Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight. They were shown the latest equipment, and were given some idea of what life was like on one of Britain’s most modern warships. They watched, enthralled, the take-off and homing flights of the aircraft.

Now, it was time for the ‘high-spot’ of the evening: the rescue of a man from a floating dinghy.

“While the aircraft were taking off and landing,” Berkeley Smith told me, “a helicopter hovered around – as a kind of guard in case anyone dropped into the drink.” The helicopter (already familiar in the skies over Britain but not, obviously, as technically developed as it is today) was earning a new reputation for its life-saving role at sea.

“Alan Chivers, the producer, thought it would be a good plan for me to describe my own rescue by helicopter,” Berkeley Smith said, “so that viewers could see just what would happen in an emergency – if, for instance, a pilot had been shot down.”

Thousands of viewers watched as the BBC man, clad in naval protective gear, climbed into a naval cutter, and then, a few minutes later, was cast adrift.

“Out in my little dinghy,” he said, “I had a throat-microphone fixed around my neck – a very novel thing at that time. You see, I had to keep my hands free. About a thousand yards of waterproof cable stretched in a curve between me and the carrier. I realised very quickly that there was going to be trouble. With Bulwark still making way, there was a tremendous pull on the cable – and on me.”

He paused, and chuckled. “I can remember sending a message to the Captain – telling him to stop the ship!”

It’s only fair to add that the Royal Navy hadn’t been too happy about the id a in the first place: they realised there would be a lot of drag on the cable.

“If you get into any trouble,” said the officer in charge of the operation, handing Berkeley Smith a couple of knives, “you must cut yourself adrift from that cable.”

The sun shone: there was no wind. The helicopter pilot, unable to hover as much as was needed for this tricky ‘fishing’ operation, made two passes, trying each time to scoop up the dinghy, with Berkeley Smith in it, into the big open-sided net. Time was precious, and it was running out. This was a live television programme!

Berkeley Smith talked into the microphone, “. . . describing to Mr. Everyman the sensations of what was to him – and to me – a completely new and untried experience, in fact, giving a heart-beat by heart-beat account of what it felt like.

“I’m now going to get into the net,” said the commentator, and the next time the chopper came along, he jumped. It was, although he didn’t appreciate it at the time, a dangerous move to make.

“It wasn’t difficult to do,” he said, “but, the moment I began to be winched up under the helicopter, I realised the tremendous weight that was bearing down on this neck-microphone. The cable, you see, was still down under the water, in an enormous curve between me and HMS Bulwark.”

The helicopter started climbing. The winch jammed. Spinning round in the wide-meshed net, 80 or so feet above the Channel, Berkeley Smith grabbed frantically with his hands at the microphone, trying to get the thing off. “What was happening was that the neck-mike was pulling me out of the net into the sea. Normally, I can’t go up more than 10 feet without suffering from severe vertigo – so I didn’t think this was very funny. All that deep, blue sea below . . .”

Suddenly he remembered the sailor’s warning. Where were those knives? He reached for them. They weren’t there. Then he remembered. They were still in the dinghy – he’d left them there when he leapt into the net!

So there was nothing he could do but cling on – and hope he wouldn’t be strangled.

From the carrier an order went out to keep incoming aircraft from landing. Viewers at home caught their breath and watched every move.

“The pilot looked over, realised I was in trouble, and then managed to edge himself on to the flight deck of the carrier just in time. I just made the side of the ship still breathing. I was,” said Berkeley Smith, “extremely relieved to be down on the deck again.”

Meanwhile the programme had to go on, and viewers found they were watching a mock attack by Sea Hawks.

“I remember some critic saying, next day, ‘Berkeley Smith looked grim when he returned to the carrier’.” He laughed. “My goodness – I felt grim! I wondered how on earth I was going to get out of that one!”

Berkeley Smith has a sense of fun, and a genuine gift for enjoying life – even when it plays one of its tricks on him. Another memory suddenly struck him about this true adventure and I asked him what it was.

He chuckled. “I was commenting from the moment I climbed overboard,” he recalled. “But I’ve got a feeling that quite a bit of my commentary wasn’t heard at all – I’m not at all certain that microphone was actually working!”

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