Royal Navy helicopter pilot and Limavady man Stuart Cassidy made a flying entrance to his old school this week as part of a Navy careers day.
Stuart, who joined the Navy two weeks before September 11, 2001 and has completed five tours of Iraq as well as two in Afghanistan, arrived in a Sea Hawk Royal Navy rescue helicopter at Limavady Grammar School to rapturous applause from an enthralled welcoming party of local school pupils.
The helicopter pilot spoke to the Sentinel about his long flying career, in which he has been involved in combat operations and survived a helicopter crash.
The former Limavady Grammar School pupil described watching the events of September the 11th unfold – two weeks before he started military service – and thinking ‘what am I getting myself in for’.
Despite his initial misgivings, the local man has had a long and prosperous career and was able to pass on his first hand experience of life in both the Navy and the RAF to students at the Grammar this week.
Despite his experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he says that his current role in sea rescue involves the most difficult flying conditions.
“I grew up here, I’m a Limavady boy through and through,” he said.
“I lived here until I was 15 although I kept up with the school to do my A-levels. I grew up in Myroe, most of my time when I was here, I spent quite a bit of time in the town – as you do when you are that age.
“I did GCSEs at AS and A Levels here at the Grammar school before I went to Queen’s University to study chemical engineering. I had no intentions of joining the military up until I finished my degree, basically.
“I was reading through the Times 100 booklet that they send out every year, about the 100 best employers, and page 56 or 58 I think it was, the Royal Navy had an advert with a large grey frigate coming out of the page at you, bashing through a large wave.
“It looked really exciting. By growing up in the North West, I was always by the sea – my father had a fishing boat in Portrush and I was always out fishing at weekends so I kind of always had an affiliation with the sea. I thought ‘wow, Royal Navy, that sounds quite exciting, quite prosperous’ so I thought, you know what, I’ll give it a go.
“I was 22 years of age when I went and started looking at things. It was the year 2000 and into 2001 when I started the interview process. I went up to Palace Barracks, spoke to a career’s officer to join as a marine engineer because with an engineering background from Queen’s I thought that would be something I could probably do, not thinking at all about being a pilot or aircrew.
“Luckily enough, I had a really good careers officer, who like the guy who is there at the minute, Lieutenant Commander Harry Wickes, is a really good guy who really knows his stuff and can help you in the right kind of role.
“So, I went there to join as a marine engineer and Lieutenant Commander Quinn, who was the careers officer at the time, asked me if there was anything else that would interest me in the Navy.
“They show you a video when you get there so you can have an idea what the Navy do and all the different roles and careers within the Navy and, of course, it focussed quite a lot on the visual side of things with aircraft, big ships and that sort of thing.
“There were a lot of aircraft in it so I thought I would chance my arm, I loved watching Top Gun as a kid, and I had always wanted to be a fast jet pilot. I thought I would chance my arm so I said to the careers officer ‘I would love to be a pilot’ and he turned around straight away and said ‘yeah, why not, why don’t you go for that?’”
“I was taken aback a bit. It is quite a lot of work but there isn’t any reason why anyone can’t go for it. They monitor your character during the interview processes and they will choose those that they think can go through. They look at your academic background and they decide you’ve got a good chance – if you pass the tests.
“I went and did the tests over in England, all paid for by the Navy. You do an aptitude test to see if you’ve got the capacity to take on information and become air crew. You sit behind a computer screen, you’ve got a keypad in front of you, a number keypad also, and a joystick. You follow the dot on the screen while doing mental arithmetic and typing in answers. It’s multi-tasking. It can be quite difficult but you don’t know until you try it. It is something that you can’t really prepare for – that initial phase of trying to get in as aircrew - and it is something that everyone who wants to become air crew, no matter what service they are in, does that specific test and you are graded on your results.
“So, I did it, and I got through that test. It is one of those things that you can either do it or you can’t do it. It is not a failure on your part if you don’t pass it. It is just either in your character, your cognitive abilities basically, or it is not.
“Well, lucky enough I got through that and got selected to be a pilot and joined the Navy in 2001, straight after September 11th.
“I was in Coleraine, I can remember it as clear as ever, watching that happen and thinking ‘what have I signed myself up for?’
“Thankfully, and luckily, it was a good career that was promoted to me in the correct manner and I decided, right, continue on.
“I joined up at Dartmouth to do my initial training two weeks later, which everyone does no matter what speciality you sign on for and from there I progressed on to flying training.
“I’ve been flying since 2002, when I started my initial flying training.”
The Limavday man described the years of training he went through with the Navy, beginning with light fixed wing aircraft before moving on to train with helicopters.
He continued: “In 2004, I joined 848 Squadron down at Yeovilton to become a ‘junglie’ on the Mark 4 Sea King. That’s the helicopter I brought back here, the last time, which was 2007. So, another nine months training on that and that is your advanced combat pilot training for really learning the helicopter and then you go into your operational flying training after that.
“That is where you learn to, what we say is ‘fight the aircraft’ to be able to do all the tactics behind it, low flying, formation flying, things like that.
“I completed that in 2005 and I joined my first front-line unit in 2005, which was 845 Squadron. I got trained up straight away and within three months I was out in Iraq. I did my first tour in Iraq in the summer of 2005. At the end of that I crashed, I had my first crash – first and only crash, touch wood – and experience in an operational theatre.
“From there, I finished in 2007 and from there moved and did an exchange with the RAF to fly pumas, based out of Aldergrove for two years. It was very nice to be home. All the troubles had pretty much finished at that stage and any operations in Northern Ireland had ceased so it was local area flying, to do, well, nicer things.
“Again, we were out in Iraq so I did another two tours. I had already done three by that stage so I had done five tours but with the pumas I was in Baghdad so it was a different location – a lot busier.
“From that, in 2010, I went back as a junglie as a Flight Commander, did two and a half years as a junglie where I did two tours of Afghanistan and then finally got my respite in 2012 to become rescue.
“I’m definitely very happy doing it – great flying. It is the hardest flying I have ever done, harder than any operational flying. Purely because of the weather conditions and the type of the job that you have to go out and do – saving people’s lives is usually done when the weather conditions are bad.
“Work hard at school, definitely. I am a parent now but any adult will tell you that. Work hard at school, listen to your teachers as much as you can. With the Navy, at present, a career with the Navy is going to be most prosperous at this time. They are getting a lot of new equipment, it is looking really good for the future, from 2020 onwards. There is a slight transition period now where we are getting the new equipment, getting used to it – like the new aircraft carrier, new helicopters, new fast jets. It is definitely a good career to look into, particularly air crew, but there are a lot of different jobs in the Navy. It is not just flying helicopters.”