Commander Jason Phillips, the former commander of Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose Credit royal navy

Commander Jason Phillips, the former commander of RNAS Culdrose described the harrowing moment his Sea King splashed into the North Sea (Picture: Royal Navy).

Navy

How A Royal Navy Helicopter Crash At Sea Entered This Senior Officer Into The Goldfish Club

The former commander of RNAS Culdrose has described the moment his Sea King and aircrew made an emergency landing into the North Sea.

Commander Jason Phillips, the former commander of Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose Credit royal navy

Commander Jason Phillips, the former commander of RNAS Culdrose described the harrowing moment his Sea King splashed into the North Sea (Picture: Royal Navy).

A senior Royal Navy officer has described how he entered an exclusive club after nearly losing his life when his helicopter crashed into the sea.

Commander Jason Phillips, the former commander of Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, survived when his Sea King helicopter was engulfed in flames and splashed into the North Sea.

The 55-year-old said he genuinely thought he was going to die when he became trapped in the submerged aircraft.

His remarkable escape meant he was granted membership of the Goldfish Club, a fraternity of military and civilian men and women who have all survived aircraft crashes at sea.

"Looking back, I think I was very lucky," he said.

"All that training absolutely kicked in and it all worked as advertised. I was lucky because, well, I survived, and it introduced me to a group of fantastic people in the Goldfish Club."

Cdr Phillips spoke of the incident which happened in 1998, as he retires from the navy after 30 years of service.

He trained as an observer, the aircrew member in charge of tactics, navigation and weapons, in Sea King helicopters.

Commander Jason Phillips, the former commander of Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose and aircrew Credit royal navy
The then-Lieutenant Jason Phillips (standing, second from left) with fellow aircrew while deployed with HMS Sutherland in 1992 (Picture: Jason Phillips).

In September 1998, then-Lieutenant Phillips was flying with Culdrose’s 820 Naval Air Squadron.

He was flying back from Holland with his four-man crew, after taking part in an exercise.

They were then asked to locate a Jaguar jet that had crashed off the coast of Norfolk the previous day.

When trying to lower down to the jet, their aircraft was found to have a hydraulic leak which caused a fire on board their Sea King.

At first Commander Phillips thought his crew were playing a practical joke.

"Flames just started to appear all around my radar screen," he said.

"I remember thinking, 'That’s a really neat trick by the guys up front – how have they done that?'.

"Then the flames spread everywhere and I looked round to see the aircrewman covered in flames.

"The fire extinguisher was in the back of the aircraft beyond my reach, so I tried to put the flames out with my hands.

"Now, the flames were caused by burning hydraulic fluid sparking on the electronics – so I was never going to put it out with my hands.

"That just meant both my hands were now on fire.

"By this point, the fireball entered the cockpit and pilots decided the only option was to go for a positive water landing – that means to ditch.

"We were only at about 40 feet and we soon hit the water. The back door buckled and water started to come in. The pilot in control then decided to roll the aircraft to put the fire out," he added.

As the helicopter flooded with water, Commander Phillips pulled himself through one of the windows frames, used as an emergency exit, but then he became stuck.

"It was then I realised I was going to die," he added.

"You know, I was very relaxed about it all and I felt completely at peace. It absolutely felt like I was there for ages. Then I felt that jolting thought of my wife and my children – I had three children at the time."

Commander Jason Phillips Sea King retired from North Sea Credit Royal Navy
Cdr Phillip's Sea King helicopter, which was recovered after it was forced to ditch in the sea in 1998 (Picture: Jason Phillips).

He realised he was still strapped to his emergency seat pack, containing his inflatable life raft, which had become jammed in the frame behind him.

Reaching behind to free the pack, he was able to pull himself free of the aircraft and break to the surface.

All four aircrew managed to escape the sinking aircraft.

Since the incident, Cdr Phillips joined the Goldfish Club and now sits on the committee and writes the club's newsletter.

"In the Club, it’s all about how long you were in the water for.

"I remember on my first meeting saying, oh about 40 to 50 minutes, and this old boy saying he’d been an air engineer in Lancasters and had been in the sea for three days, five miles from the Dutch coast with the Germans shelling him. That made me think."

There are around 400 people in the club, which meets each year for a formal reunion weekend.

After his ordeal, Commander Phillips returned to flying and was soon posted for three years to Australia.

He returned to Culdrose and converted to the Merlin helicopter before promotion and command of his old 820 Naval Air Squadron.

He led the squadron for three years, becoming the longest-serving front-line squadron commanding officer in Fleet Air Arm history.