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January 2014 report

There is not much humour, still less bathos, to be had from this month’s happenings so I will not even try. We left another uneventful Parish Council meeting to find that an American helicopter on a low-level training flight had crashed onto the Bird Reserve killing the crew. Within hours the nation’s media had descended on… Salthouse, setting up camp at the Dun Cow.

Piecing it all together as best I can, it seems that two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters belonging to the 56Th Rescue Squadron (part of the 48th Fighter Wing) came down the Glaven Valley flying low and fast before swinging out over the Cley Bird Reserve heading east. At that point one of the helicopters, call sign Jolly 22, crash-landed on the marsh and disintegrated, the wreckage being strewn in a line over 100 metres long. The other craft swung around and landed adjacent to the crash-site in order to render what aid they could. They couldn’t do anything of course. Various rumours quickly spread that the crashed helicopter was carrying “explosives”. In fact it was loaded with 1200 rounds of 0.5” calibre machine gun ammunition – standard issue according to the USAF – and maybe a sidearm or two. If there had been a fire on impact this ammunition could have started exploding all over the place but fortunately there was not and the clean-up teams are confident they will find it all. Why they are flying around fully armed on training missions is another question.

A painstaking forensic examination of the site, followed by an attempt to reconstruct the craft – like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle with an unknown number of missing pieces – will, it is hoped, lead to the discovery of the cause of the crash; this could take up to a year.

The media circus, alerted to the long standing ‘problem’ of low flying in this area, chose to run with this aspect of the story. Some thought this inopportune but at all other times this matter has been raised in the past it has been brushed off by the authorities as none of our concern. Perhaps the glare of publicity might, just might, make them pay a bit more attention for once. Meanwhile we must never lose sight of the fact that three young men, Capt Ruane, Capt Stover and TechSgt Matthews, and one young woman, Staff Sgt Ponce, have died suddenly, tragically, needlessly.

Not only do I have great sympathy for the family and friends of the dead aircrew, I can empathise with them too: my father was a RAF pilot for 22 years so I spent much of my youth living on a succession of airbases. I saw at first hand the pain and suffering that resulted from the deaths of aircrew in training exercises – arguably worse than deaths in combat because they are so unexpected. The Air Ministry would dish out a widow’s pension with one hand and an eviction notice with the other. It was truly harrowing.

Much has been made in the media of the good safety record of the Pave Hawk so it was perhaps salutary to read in the US forces’ own paper, the Stars & Stripes, a report that “in the past year there have been multiple crashes involving Pave Hawk and similar helicopters…”  Mmmm. As an aside, it was interesting to note how often the London-based media referred to the crash site as “remote”! One suspects that to them anywhere that is more than 30 miles from a Tube station is beyond the Pale.

The reaction within this community has been one of shock and sorrow, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Such events bring out people’s generosity so it was galling to find on RAF Lakenheath’s Facebook page a warning from the 48th Fighter Wing about scam sites purporting to be collecting funds for the bereaved families. There is only one ‘official’ appeal, operated by Lakenheath resident Caitlin Malone at www.gofundme.com/64f4s8 where online donations can be made should you so wish. As a guide this site raised just under $25,000 in its first couple of days. It is sad that some people will stoop so low as to try and cash-in on other’s grief.

The US forces used some humungous lorries to bring in their salvage equipment – it was a miracle they got through the village without doing serious damage – so it is fortuitous that the Anglian Water plan to dig up most of the New Road had been put back a couple of weeks; it is now scheduled to start at the beginning of February. By coincidence the work to reopen Church Lane is also due to start on 27 January followed by the arrival of the new sails for Cley Mill. All in all February looks to be an ‘interesting’ month.

The Environment Agency have been drip-feeding information to us but little hard information is available. They have patched up our West Bank but our County Councillor, Mike Baker, who attended the meeting of Salthouse Parish Council informs me that they intend to let Nature take its course in the name of ‘managed retreat’ with regard to the breaches in the shingle bank. With the high Spring tides due in a week or so (at the time of writing) they accept they may have to close the A149 for a few days every fortnight due to flooding. A time of increased volatility in the weather leading to more frequent inundation does seem a slightly odd time to be slashing EA staff and, despite what Cameron says, cutting funds for flood amelioration works. Given that every Englishman’s home is his castle, are the government working on the principle that every castle should have a moat?

The next meeting of Cley Parish Council will be held on Tuesday 4 February 2014 in the Village Hall club room, starting at 7.30pm. The Liaison Officer from RAF Marham, Flt Lt Pettit, has agreed to attend the meeting if you have anything you wish to ask.

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