23 July 2024

We’re glad we dropped by, say Royal Navy Raiders

At last year’s Blue Light Weekend, the Royal Navy Raiders parachute team were a hit with the people of Withernsea – and it turns out the feeling was mutual, writes Sam Hawcroft

‘The reaction from the local community was overwhelming,” says team leader Dave Lee, who, like the others, was visiting the town for the first time – and had travelled many miles north to get there.

The Raiders – who celebrated their 40th anniversary last year – all have full-time roles in the Royal Navy and comprise a multitude of disciplines and ranks right across the Surface Fleet, Submarine Service, Royal Marines and Fleet Air Arm. They volunteer to be in the Raiders in addition to their “day jobs”, so when the display season comes around, they’re very busy people indeed.

They promised a spectacular display last year, and they did not disappoint.

Flown by Hollym-based helicopter pilot Martyn Taylor, they jumped out on to the beach near Withernsea’s South Promenade, unfurling their Royal Navy and Union flags and colourful plumes of smoke as they descended.

They were watched by hundreds of people lining the sea front, some seeing it with their own eyes, many more through mobile phones and telephoto lenses, tap-tap-tapping and click-click-clicking to capture the moment forever.

After they landed, the Raiders team mingled among the crowd to pack away their parachutes; for their impact on solid ground is as important to the Royal Navy – more so, even – than that in the air.

“All the kids were coming out and asking us about what we were doing and about the Navy, which is what we’re all about,” says Dave.

“It’s about recruitment and engagement for us, and the display is a vehicle for that. It gives us an opportunity to sound people out on whether joining the Navy might be something for them. There are plenty of opportunities there and I think a lot of people there were quite keen on hearing about interesting careers.”

Recruitment in the Royal Navy – as it is in other areas of the armed forces – is a “challenge”, says Dave. Many of the roles require long periods away from home, and for young people who are used to being connected 24/7, being on operations can be a bit of a shock to the system.

But there are several opportunities within the engineering disciplines – Dave is a Weapon Engineer Officer himself – and a number of naval professions and disciplines offer a good balance between time at sea and time ashore.

And being in the Navy is much more than just a job, Dave says.

“It’s more of a lifestyle – the opportunities you get in and in and around your day-to-day job are numerous. You get to spend time doing adventure training – activities such as parachuting or mountaineering – things like that are positively encouraged.

“There are all sorts of sports and societies that you can join as part of the service and there really is a huge opportunity for an interesting and rewarding career.

“I’ve been in almost 20 years and I’m still enjoying it.”

Dave and his team spent a couple of nights in Withernsea and he was full of praise for the Blue Light Weekend team who made sure the Raiders were immersed in the event.

“They put us up in the Alexandra Hotel, and Sergeant Dave Walker – aka Para Dave, who was our lead in the area from the local Army, put us in contact with all sorts of people, and they were super-brilliant. They hosted us really well all weekend and even got us involved with some of their events.

“They held a colour run and a raft race, which we presented the awards for, and it was just great fun.”

Participants in the colour run were under strict instructions to not, under any circumstances, throw powder over the Raiders team, who had been tasked with starting the race.

“We were wearing our jumpsuits and we had to use them the next day as well,” says Dave, “so it was a bit challenging to avoid getting covered in it – but it was all brilliant fun.”

Thankfully, the weather played ball on the day – because poor visibility or strong winds could have forced them to abandon or reduce their display.

“Rain’s not so much of a problem – it’s more about clouds because you clearly need to be able to see when you get out of an aircraft that you’re in the right point to make your exit.

“The conditions overall are quite challenging. Particularly with a coastal location where you’ve got potentially strong winds, you need to be going in the right direction or at least need to account for the direction, so that you don’t get blown out to sea when landing on a beach.

“Our parachutes are pretty steerable, though – so we are able to land very accurately when we plan everything and it all works properly. Landing on the beach was hugely fun.”

It was a first for experienced local helicopter pilot Martyn Taylor (featured in last week’s edition), who went through the required additional training not long before the event and is now believed to be the only helicopter pilot in the North qualified to drop parachutists.

“It’s not an easy thing to do because British skydiving has stringent requirements,” says Dave, “and it’s pretty challenging, particularly for someone who’s never dropped parachutists before.

“It’s actually a really small aircraft, and four big blokes in the back can cause it to go unstable when they get out. But Martyn did all the training – he specifically got himself qualified for it – and it was a joy to work with him.”

This year’s display promises to be equally as spectacular as last time. As in 2023, there will be four team members, because that’s the limit that Martyn’s helicopter can take. Dave will be among them, having completed his pre-season skydiving training back in April. This year, because of the awful spring weather, it took seven days rather than the usual two or three, to get in the mandatory 20 jumps.

If you missed it last year (where were you?), once again they’ll be descending with flags and coloured smoke – and once again there’ll be the chance to chat to the team on dry land.

“We have people from all areas of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines – officers and other ranks, male, female, reservists and full-time, so it’s quite a spread of people,” says Dave. “And the good thing about that is that usually when someone wants to know about one of the roles that we have in service, there’s somebody that can give them an insight.”

Another role the team performed on landing last year was to pick the winners of a raffle to win a flight in Martyn’s helicopter – but this was no ordinary ticket-out-of-a-hat job.

Ahead of the jumps, the Blue Light Weekend organisers – aided by the team on the Gazette stall – had sold hundreds of beer mats for £1 each, with the name and phone number of entrants on the back, and these were distributed right across the beach.

Each Raider then picked one lucky winner, and the four were taken on an amazing ride over Withernsea as the festival drew to a close.

(For anyone worrying about what happened to all those beer mats, they were collected up and securely destroyed.)

The competition was such a success that it will be run again this year, and the Raiders are hugely looking forward to being part of it.

And if you want to see what jumping out of a helicopter and landing on Withernsea beach is like from a Raider’s eye view – don’t miss the social media feeds of the Blue Light Weekend and Raiders, as they will be sharing a video that the team members recorded on the day.