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A mediaeval chivalric order survives as the St John Ambulance Brigade

Posted in Aid, Disasters, Historical articles, History, Institutions, Medicine, Philanthropy, Religion on Monday, 19 March 2012

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This edited article about the St John Ambulance Brigade originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 669 published on 9 November 1974.

Operation Rescue, picture, image, illustration

Sea rescue by volunteers of the St John Ambulance Brigade, by Clive Uptton

At football and cricket matches, in cinemas and theatres, at exhibitions, tattoos and country shows or wherever public entertainment is staged, the navy blue uniformed men, women and ‘teenagers of the St John Ambulance Brigade maintain their unobtrusive watch, ready to comfort and treat the sudden accident victim.

The army that wears the eight-pointed white cross of mercy is just one branch of the Order of St John, the chivalrous crusade born in the Middle Ages and today a vast international medical movement of 150,000 volunteers: a sobering thought in an age of increasing materialism.

The ambulance brigade, which celebrates its centenary in 1977, was set up by the order to cope with the flood of accidents that came with the Industrial Revolution. Today, the value of their voluntary work is underlined by the current accident rate in Britain: 20,000 deaths, 300,000 serious injuries and five million minor ones. The brigade treats 400,000 accident victims a year, involving four million hours of voluntary public duty. It is a high-speed medical corps that operates on land, at sea and in the air . . .

. . . The twin-engined Beechbaron roared down the fog-blanketed runway of Manston Aerodrome and took off into thick cloud, heading for Cardiff and Belfast. On board were precious cargoes of transplant kidneys needed urgently for operations in the two cities. Time was vital. Once removed from a donor patient the life of a kidney is limited to 10 hours . . .

Noel Knight, the pilot, peered out from his cockpit at the enveloping cloud and decided he would have to fly on instruments all the way. New Year celebrations the day before suddenly seemed a very long way off! But the landing at Cardiff offered no problems despite the poor visibility. It took only minutes to hand over the transplant organs, which were immediately despatched through darkened city streets to surgeons waiting at an operating table . . .

Knight took off again, headed out over the Irish Sea for Belfast where he arrived to deliver his second vital parcel. The operation from the moment he received the emergency signal at his Berkshire home just before 1 am had taken less than four and a half hours. But on the flight back fog again blacked out his approach to his home airport – and he was diverted to Birmingham!

Knight is one of 95 “weekend” pilots with 62 aircraft at their disposal all over Britain, ready to fly mercy missions over the whole of Europe. This is the St John Ambulance Air Wing, which was formed in February 1972, to provide a volunteer air service to fly transplant organs, drugs, blood supplies and even patients in emergencies when other means were not available.

The idea caught on quickly. It took only a year to build up the air wing from a few volunteer pilots into a force of experienced airmen “based” at major cities from Dundee to London.

In its first year of operations, the Air Wing carried out 53 successful missions over a total of 32,000 miles. And on 38 occasions, pilots were at emergency stand-by stations before the request for help was cancelled.

But whether they are measured in terms of miles flown or successful missions undertaken and patients or drugs transported, the wing’s activities have doubled over the past year, a remarkable achievement masterminded by a team of only 15 controllers. No request went unanswered.

Closer cooperation and liaison with the Automobile Association brought calls for the repatriation of many of their members from abroad and there was a great increase in overseas missions.

In fact, 15 of the flights were overseas to France, Denmark, Germany, Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, and more than 40 were at night. Each one was an adventure and many a test of initiative and endurance . . .

A night call to one pilot sent him dashing to his airfield, which he found, surprisingly, deserted. Fog was closing in. So he pushed his plane out of the hangar, taxied up and down the unlighted runway with his landing light on to make sure there were no obstructions and then set his nosewheel on the centre white line. With the engines at full pitch he raced down the darkened airstrip and took off for Belfast.

Halfway across the Irish Sea, Belfast Airport informed him that fog had forced flying operations to be cancelled. But a shipbuilding firm with a private airfield nearby turned out their staff to open up the aerodrome for the incoming St John aircraft.

On another occasion, two pilots in an aircraft landed at Paris Orly as fog yet again tried to upset an emergency operation. A hand appeared from the darkness, grabbed the parcel of medical supplies which vanished into the night, leaving two St John fliers alone on a huge tarmac with huge jetliners about to be talked down through the inky blackness . . .

The Air Wing has now become an accepted part of air traffic and control towers across the Continent are familiar with their call-sign. A tower supervisor at one international airport has more than once “stacked” jets and kept them in the air to enable a St John plane to land to complete a mercy mission.

If the air wing provides the latest and, perhaps, the most adventurous branch of St John, other groups offer equal excitement at sea and on land.

Throughout every summer, St. John mariners are on the alert around the coast ready to tackle any hazard at sea. In Guernsey, a first air-sea rescue launch is in service and off South Wales, teams from Cardiff use high-speed inflatable craft to keep watch on swimmers and yachtsmen caught in the treacherous currents of the Bristol Channel.

St John lifeguards saved 25 lives off Welsh beaches alone last year. Even on rivers, St John cadets, trained in the intricacies of canoeing and yachting, are on regular rescue duty.

In Wales and Scotland, too, St John have sponsored a mountain rescue service equipped with a special £5,000 vehicle capable of providing tackle, winches, tents and medical aid for any climber trapped and injured on perilous peaks. In emergencies, it teams up with the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Association and the Glenshee Ski Rescue Association, which often makes dangerous sorties through the winter snows for unwary victims of avalanches and unseen crevasses.

But if the Brigade has a full-time job in every field of human succour at home, then its overseas commitments are just as great. Its responsibilities embrace 47 nations, spanning the world from the Arctic to New Zealand . . .

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