Former Inverell RSL Sub-branch president Pat McMahon has received a Conspicuous Service Medal (CSM) from this year's Queen's Birthday Honours List, for his pivotal role in rescuing of an injured fisherman from a Japanese trawler off the coast of Brisbane, while serving in the RAAF as the senior loadmaster on a Blackhawk helicopter on August 31 1991.
Pat said the award began with a beautiful letter from the Chief of Air Force in December last year.
"But, of course, you can't say anything. Because it's got to go through a long process. Once it goes through the chief, it has to go through the Minister of Defence and then onto the Governor General," he said.
"A few weeks ago I got a phone call to say it was going to be gazetted on the Queen's birthday.
"While the phone call was a happy moment, thinking about the rescue brought back a lot of stressful memories."
Pat was a RAAF Flight Sergeant, working at an Army unit and flying an Army aircraft while training young Army loadmasters at the time. He said they were out on a training mission when tasked with the rescue at about 4pm. They returned to Oakey airfield to configure the aircraft and prepare it for rescue.
"It was a very, very hard rescue to do," he said.
"We were in a Blackhawk with the external fuel tanks fitted. We'd never rescued anyone in a litter, the cage that they lie down in, we'd never rescued anyone in a Blackhawk in Australia and we'd never rescued anyone with those internal tanks on.
"I just happened to be the last one on the base, flying around on a training mission, so I got the job. Anyway, we headed out to Brisbane airport to pick up a Japanese interpreter, a CareFlight doctor and nurse."
IT WAS A SMALL FISHING TRAWLER
The injured fisherman was in a serious condition, his an arm was almost severed by a shark, the small trawler was 183 miles out to sea and the Blackhawk was the only aircraft capable of getting there, but it was tough going.
"The seas were very rough and at that stage we were getting into very poor light, it's getting dark. But, we found the trawler, and got him to face that little trawler into the wind, so we could hover over the top of them," Pat said.
"I was getting stressed because we had never done any of this before. The trawler was getting tossed about beneath us, one minute it's there the next it's not, and the poor captain had no references because he's pointing straight out into the ocean.
"So, I sent the doctor down to the trawler, and that was a big job just getting him onto it. I just could not get the trawler and the doctor together, as soon as I got him close to the deck the trawler would move."
Light poles to allow night work also protruded up from the deck, making things even more dangerous for the doctor trying to get a foothold on the bobbing deck, while the Loadmaster sweated and drew on every minute of experience he had.
"In the end, I found a spot and gave "Full down table" and got him on there," Pat said.
"I retrieved the sling and sent down the Stoke's Litter, the cage they strap the injured person into. The doctor stopped the bleeding and got the fisherman into the litter.
"He gave me the thumbs up and I started to bring the unconscious fisherman up"
IT COULD PULL US INTO THE OCEAN
With the patient about 20 feet off the deck, the Blackhawk was about to move to the left to continue the rescue.
"But before I could get a chance, the fishing trawler tossed left then right and caught the cable on the light pole that goes over the deck," Pat said.
"So, the aircraft is now connected to the trawler - and my check-list is; as soon as the cable becomes entangled we've got to cut it so as not to endanger the crew.
"It was my job to cut the cable. The captain was getting really upset because he could feel we were connected. I was telling him. The other loadmaster was yelling at me to cut the cable. we were all in a really stressful situation."
Pat said he knew if he followed the check-list the man in the litter would die.
"I could sort of see where it was entangled. So, I gave the captain the call to move forward and right and back around a couple of times, and with luck the cable came free," Pat said.
"I told the captain to move left, out over the ocean to get away from the trawler. He did and I had a swing up on the Stoke's Litter then. The only way I could stop that, I had to bring it up to the Blackhawk and let it bump into the fuel tank.
"When that happened what was left of his arm started bleeding again."
He got the injured fisherman on board where the nurse got to work. They then had to do it all again to retrieve the doctor, which they did without any more entanglements, but the trawler did roll quickly as he was being lifted off it and he was hit on the hip.
"It hurt him pretty bad. So, we headed straight for Brisbane Hospital. When we got there we couldn't land on the helipad because it was for small helicopters. The Blackhawks had only been in Australia for about 12 months," Pat said.
"We had to go and land in the carpark.
"We got a letter from his company and a beautiful letter from his family thanking us for saving his life. Sikorsky Helicopters in America sent us an award for doing a very dangerous, successful rescue and then, this happened."