Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the Beryl Alpha incident which saw storm force winds cause near-catastrophe to an offshore installation. Phil Johns, who was involved in the helicopter rescue of four stranded men, remembers the exercise well. But he insists winch operator, local man Gerald Flaws, never received the recognition he deserved for keeping them all alive on that frightful night. Ryan Taylor takes up the story.
“I must admit on 5th December I always remember it, and I raise a glass of whisky to Gerald, and the crew.”
So says Phil Johns, the retired helicopter engineer and winchman who has dedicated most of his working life to search and rescue operations.
Now living in Gloucestershire, the 71-year-old recalls that night in 1975 as if it happened yesterday.
Four men were stranded on a Mobil-operated oil loading tower, or buoy, which had come adrift after being hit by a 21 metre-wave in pitch dark conditions. The incident happened 100 miles east of Sumburgh.
The whole structure was at risk of toppling over into the boiling sea, raging in a wintry Force 10, which would undoubtedly have sent its occupants to an early, watery grave.
However, Phil was winched down to the bobbing structure, measuring 400 feet in length and 25 feet across, on 12 occasions as the helicopter crew persevered in their attempts to rescue the men.
Captain of the S-61 Bristow aircraft, Terry Wolf Milner would later receive the Gallantry Medal for his part in the operation, which was highlighted in The Shetland Times in July 1976. Also in the aircraft was first-aid attendant, Peter Moar.
Phil received the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Services in The Air.
But while Phil is glad the captain was given recognition – “he was a very cool customer, that captain” – it has always irked him that winch-operator, Gerald Flaws, never gained similar recognition. He is convinced he owes his life to his one-time colleague.
“Gerald is the winchman, who winches me down at the door. But he’s also the doorman, he’s looking at everything around him, and he’s talking to the captain of the aircraft, who can’t see anything.
“The captain is looking out the front in pitch blackness, and it’s Gerald that’s giving, if you like, the steering commands. Everyone is totally in Gerald’s hands.”
And everyone was saved, despite the captain resorting to some “unusual flying techniques”.
The position was made all the more precarious because of the drifting structure, which Phil insists was at risk of toppling over.
“Flying out we heard on the intercom about the problem. It was a single-point mooring that broke.
“Because the single point mooring was new, there was what was called commissioning technicians on board.
So obviously, they were stranded. There was a very real risk of this thing tipping over. If you can imagine a bottle tipping over in water. It was bobbing all over the place – very erratic. You couldn’t predict where it was going to end up.
“The buoy had a crane at the back. It was very close to our tail rotor. Gerald had to protect the helicopter. That’s why I say I owe him my life.”
The wild conditions made the operation even more difficult.
“Gerald opened the door and there was a lot of sea-spray coming in because the wind was so great. We could see the white caps of the sea. The sea was literally boiling, or tumbling over. It was a really rough night.”
Gerald’s memory is so vivid he even recalls unusual events – like the rubbish that had been left lying around on the platform, including a number of acetylene bottles “which had me worried”.
Then, of course, there’s the man who brought his luggage.
“We made 12 attempts to get these guys off,” said Gerald. “We just couldn’t position the helicopter, because of the wind and the erratic nature of the rig underneath.
“It was rather interesting because one of the guys had a case with him – like a suitcase. It was in the dark, there were no lights, I didn’t have a torch. I thought, ‘this is not a normal day’. I actually kicked it out of his hand. I got a rescue strap over him [a strap that goes round the person’s back and under his arms], and as I did that he’d reached to his side and got hold of his suitcase.”
Since then, Phil has travelled the world, leading something of “a Nomad existence” in a career that has taken him to Burma, Nigeria, Borneo and Australia. He has since been a technical director of a company looking after police helicopters and air ambulances. As he says, “time flies when you’re having fun”.
As for Gerald, he has spent more than 40 years as an engineer at Sumburgh. Seemingly quiet and reserved, he said he did not know what to say about the call for his achievements on that night to be recognised.
“It just seemed to be normal. You were asked to do it, and you went.”
But Phil insisted: “Gerald still lives in Shetland and I owe him my life to him with his skill and ability to act in a cool and professional manner. I still regret that Gerald Flaws was not recognised as he was key to all our safety on that awful night.”
Speaking in 1976, Captain Wolfe-Milner, a Canadian who was then 33, said Gerald had done a great job.
“The winch operator’s job is not spectacular, but he really has to run the show. The whole operation is dependent on his judgment and skill.”