The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome

No. 10 Winter 2003

From Sywell to Search and Rescue

by Nick Lee

A calm summer's day in 1975 was the realisation of a dream when Nick Lee was given a ride as a passenger in a Robin DR400. Already a keen aviation enthusiast, this trip gave that seed a good boost and thus began the long process of flying training needed to achieve the ultimate goal of a PPL. This was all courtesy of Sywell's Northampton School of Flying and Paul Smith, the CFI, together with the likes of Messrs Vodden, Whitlock, Underwood , Greenaway and many others.

Nick Lee.
Nick Lee.

Going solo was obviously the first hurdle and this he achieved on his 17th birthday in November 1978, culminating in the award of his own PPL in May 1980. Since then he has been flying for over nine months in the air, that is, or the equivalent of over 5,000 hours in various types and all courtesy of the Fleet Air Arm.

Leaving Bedford School after gaining his A Levels in 1979, he was successfully selected by the aero engine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce for an undergraduate apprenticeship whilst gaining an Aeronautical Engineering degree at Hatfield Polytechnic. During this time, the Falklands War erupted which further whetted his appetite for military aviation, particularly the Fleet Air Arm and an aspiration to fly the Sea Harrier. He decided that the time was right to join the Royal Navy.

Joining Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in November 1983, he completed Officer training before moving on to begin flying training at the RN Elementary Flying Training Squadron at RAF Topcliffe on the Bulldog. It is at this point that the Fleet Air Arm selects pilots either for fast jet training or rotary.

Nick joined 705 Naval Air Squadron for Basic Rotary training on the Gazelle helicopter at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, near Helston in Cornwall.

Successful completion of this course led to conversion on to the Sea King Mk5 which was used for Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) and in 1986, he joined 824 NAS, remaining in the South West.

When the Squadron moved to Prestwick in Scotland in 1987, he moved with the unit and began flying trials on the new Mk6 Sea King Intensive Flying Trials Unit going to sea as well as flying in the Highlands on Search and Rescue.

Returning to Cornwall in 1989, he joined 810 NAS. This squadron was involved in training the operational aspects of ASW to prospective ASW aircrews and involved plenty of submarine chasing in the South West Approaches and the Channel. It was also at a time when the whole ASW Sea King fleet was converting to the new Mk 6 aircraft and he was heavily involved instructing the pilots in this new Mark.

Nick was selected for training at the RAF's Central Flying School (CFS) at RAF Scampton as a Qualified Flying Instructor on the Bulldog in 1992 and he moved back to Yorkshire to be based at RAF Topcliffe. Here he was returning to the RN Elementary Flying Training Squadron but this time as an instructor, teaching novice pilots the basics of fixed wing flying, together with the more advanced techniques of instrument flying, low level navigation and formation flying. After 12 months the Squadron was disbanded and reformed as a contractorised unit called the Joint Elementary Flying Training School, flying the Slingsby Firefly and Nick became one of the Flight Commanders after achieving his A2 instructor category. As one of the Flight Commanders, he was responsible for training not only RN but also RAF student pilots and the first Kuwaiti students to go through the flying training system for some time.

In 1995, the unit moved to RAF Barkston Heath and after a few months to help them settle in, he then returned to the rotary community by attending another CFS instructors course, this time becoming a Qualified Helicopter Instructor and passing out top of the course. Now he travelled to Cornwall to join 706 Naval Air Squadron as a QHI; this squadron was responsible for training newly qualified helicopter pilots how to fly the mighty Sea King and this added instructional time allowed him to quickly gain his A2 QHI instructors category in only nine months, making him only one of a handful of dual qualified A2 QFI/QHIs in the Fleet Air Arm.

Sea King Royal Naval Rescue helicopter on training exercise.
Sea King Royal Naval Rescue helicopter on training exercise.

Leaving 706 Squadron as the Training Officer in 1998 when it de-commissioned, he went back to 810 Squadron but this time as the Operational Flying Training Flight Commander and was responsible for taking up 14 students and three aircraft to sea in numerous ships so that they could experience operations from sea before joining their first frontline Squadrons. After this period of rotary flying, he was appointed to become the Naval Flying Grading Examiner at Plymouth City Airport, again working and flying with a civilian contractor, who took students in their third term at Dartmouth and taught them a short 12 hour package of manoeuvres in a Grob. This included spinning, aerobatics and circuits. Nick then took this often very nervous and apprehensive student for a one hour Final Handling Test to assess their suitability for further Naval flying training; sometimes with an unhappy conclusion and shattered dreams but more often than not with a positive outcome. Whilst here, he persuaded his lords and masters to commission the unit as 727 Naval Air Squadron, which had been a target towing and air experience squadron during and after the war and this was considered a logical number to select for the re-commissioning. It would give the unit a higher profile as a recruiting tool and help the Fleet Air Arm recruit the pilots it needed in the future for its new carriers; it also meant he became the Commanding Officer of the smallest squadron in the FAA with only two officers and one aircrewman!

GROB 67150-2 Heron.
GROB 67150-2 Heron.

He was heavily involved in creating and establishing a further aid to recruiting was the creation of the Special Flying Award that was the Navy's solution to the demise of the RAF's Flying Scholarship scheme. This allows 36 specially selected teenagers to sample 12 hours of flying, including navigation and formation together with visits to HM Ships and the Naval Air Stations and hopefully persuade them to join the Fleet Air Arm.

In 2002, he left 727 Squadron and returning to Culdrose, took over his current post of Senior Pilot and Executive officer on 771 NAS, again flying the Sea King but this time primarily involved in Search and Rescue (SAR) in the South West. He has been involved in rescues ranging from 200 miles out over the sea to the south west to pick up injured fishermen from trawlers to saving children blown out to sea in their small inflatable, together with the daily routine of the Squadron's numerous other tasks working with RNLI lifeboats, the local community and training future crews for SAR.

So that single trip in a light aircraft 28 years ago and the support of the Northamptonshire School of Flying has given Nick a varied and long aviation career that has so far involved over 20 years continuously in the cockpit of one aircraft type or another; so far he is managing to avoid flying the dreaded desk.

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