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Veteran Borneo Wessex pilot returns for nostalgic Culdose visit

Veteran Borneo Wessex pilot returns for nostalgic Culdose visit
7 April 2016
When veteran Royal Navy helicopter pilot Lieutenant Mike Smith was last at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose he was part of 848 Naval Air Squadron flying Wessex Mk 5s.

50 years on and Mike still remembers working at the base in the early 1960s, on flying courses and living locally in Breage near Helston with his young family. 

In those days the skies around West Cornwall were full of Whirlwinds, Hillers and Wessex helicopters - mostly training for exercises at sea with the Fleet or operations in the far flung corners of the World. 

“I joined the Royal Navy in 1958 and began flying helicopters at Culdrose with 705 Naval Air Squadron, then moved onto Whirlwinds and anti-submarine warfare at Portland in Dorset, before joining 814 onboard HMS Hermes,” said Mike. 

“When I converted to Wessex 1s, I served on the old Ark Royal before becoming an instructor and joined 848 NAS, flying Wessex 5s.”

Mike’s time at Culdrose was only part of his colourful Naval career and he deployed with 848 NAS in 1965 to the Far East on board HMS Albion – one of new Commando Carriers re-rolled from Light Aircraft Carriers in support of the Royal Marines and Amphibious Warfare. 

His mission, as a flight commander, was to take him deep into the jungles of Borneo with four Wessex 5s to ‘Nanga Gaat’ Forward Operating Base (FOB).

It’s been brilliant to come back and see today’s Fleet Air Arm today.. The aircraft have changed so much, the Merlin is amazing; it’s big and very technical in comparison to our Wessex.

Veteran Royal Navy helicopter pilot Lieutenant Mike Smith

It was during this time that the Commando helicopter squadrons were given their nickname 'The Junglies' because of their long involvement in the jungle combating Indonesian insurgents, he explained.

“We took over from 845 Sqn and our tasking came direct from the Army who were operating all over the country. Some of the jobs we did also involved the Borneo Survey, flying from hill top to hill top. 

"They were charting the region for the very first time. Our maps were handed from squadron to squadron, all hand-drawn and very precious. 

"In fact several of the features they charted were named after our pilots. The Wessex was a great ‘work-horse’, it managed to do at least 90% of the things we needed it to do.”

The squadron also provided emergency rescue cover across Borneo where Mike played a prominent part in evacuating an army patrol which included two injured soldiers. 

The rescue took three days, during part of which Mike was flown for seven miles hanging from a strap beneath the helicopter holding a stretcher at the end of a rope from the wire winch.

Mike said, “It’s been brilliant to come back and see today’s Fleet Air Arm today. The aircraft have changed so much, the Merlin is amazing; it’s big and very technical in comparison to our Wessex. Culdrose has also changed, but there are a few areas that still look familiar, it’s always been a very nice place to work.”

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