“If we go down, it’s every man for himself, just get out.” Corporal Justin Morgan fixes me with a steely gaze. He’s not joking.
“Don’t worry about if there’s a fire, the pipes behind me are full of hydraulic liquid, they’ll flare up and it’ll look pretty bad, but just get out. If we’re injured and you’re not, just go, it’s every man for himself.”
It’s 10am at RNAS Culdrose, in Cornwall, and Corporal Morgan is taking me through a safety briefing before we take off for a tour of the southern Cornish coast. He’ll be doing what he does best, leaping from the Royal Naval Air Service’s helicopter into the sea. It’s what he does most days. He’s effected hundreds of rescues during the past two years, saving countless lives and putting his own in danger in the line of duty.
Corporal Morgan, 32, who hails from Harlescott Grange, in Shrewsbury, hit the headlines earlier this summer when he battled 40ft waves to save a sailor who was stricken off the coast. 771 Naval Air Squadron had been scrambled to save the life of a man who would have drowned without their intervention.
They had to search 30 square miles of ocean before locating him, and the rescue could not have been more dramatic.
“It was one of those occasions when I looked out the side of the helicopter and I thought ‘I might not make it back’. I knew I could have lost my life.
The waves were 40ft high, which is massive. The rescue was very, very complicated and there were lots of times when I went under. I was spending more time beneath the water than I was on the surface.
“Somehow, I managed to get a rope around the guy that we were trying to rescue and I pulled him towards me. Then we got him onto the helicopter. It’s impossible to exaggerate the level of difficulty. It was a life and death situation. Thankfully, we made it home and we saved the sailor. But that evening, when the four crew from 771 NAS were back on the base, we all looked at each other. We knew we’d gone above and beyond the call. We knew how lucky we were to all have made it back.”
There have been countless similar incidents. “We had one a little while ago, when a surfer got into trouble. It took us eight minutes from receiving the call to being airborne. We were with him really, really quickly. When they dropped me into the water he was already submerged and unconscious. He was close to death.
“I managed to retrieve him from the water and lift him onto the helicopter, via the winch. But another 30 seconds, another minute, and he would have been gone.”
Corporal Morgan joined the Royal Marines after seeing an advertisement. He wanted fun and adventure in his life, so he signed up. It’s a decision he’s proud to have made. He’s spent more than two years in Afghanistan, making numerous return visits, and he’s also spent time in the Americas, the Arctic and other parts of the Middle East.
The former pupil at The Grange School, whose family and friends still live in Shrewsbury, says: “When we’re going out on those missions, I just try to get myself into a position where I’m calm, where I can do my job.
“It’s the same environment as when you’re on active duty, exchanging fire, in the Marines. You have to detach yourself from the situation, you can’t let your emotions play a part. You have to know your job and you have to be brave enough to do it.
“You can’t think about what might happen. I’ve always been viciously confident. There’ll be situations where some of the others guys say ‘no, we can’t do that’, and I’ll be the one who says ‘Yes, we can, let’s do it, send me in’.”
Today’s mission is a training exercise and Corporal Morgan exits the helicopter twice, while his trusty winch man, Richie Full, watches over. On his first sortee, he drops down onto a passing merchant ship, having first obtained permission from its captain to land. He hits the deck with pinpoint accuracy before being winched back on board.
Later, he drops onto the jagged rocks that dominate the Cornish coast. “This is a simulation,” he says. “We get lots of holiday makers who are in the area and want to go right to the edge to look over. Then they fall and we have to go and save them. Sometimes it’s not nice, there are fatalities, but there’s a great sense of accomplishment when we save somebody’s life.
“We don’t think about it while we’re doing it. We’re well trained and we just go and do our job. But when we get back to base and everyone is safe and well, it’s like a huge wave of emotion that washes over us.
“But that’s not what drives us on. We just want to do our best, to serve, and to make sure we save people.”
And with that, the helicopter revs up and whisks us back to the safety of RNAS Culdrose. It’s a long way from Shrewsbury, but it’s a place that Corporal Morgan has come to call home.