Rescuer demoted after his landing helicopter at butcher’s becomes YouTube hit
A HELICOPTER pilot at the helm of search and rescue operations in Scotland for the past two decades has been demoted by his bosses for dropping in on a butcher to pick up meat while on duty.
Paul Bentley’s working life has been dedicated to Shetland Coastguard’s famous Oscar Charlie aircraft and he has been involved in some of the country’s most daring rescue operations, including searching for survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster.
However, his career crash-landed in April when mobile phone footage was posted on YouTube showing the helicopter, with its distinctive red and white colours, touching down in an Orkney field to allow the crew to collect a consignment of beef.
Bentley and his colleague, pilot Steve Gladstone, were immediately suspended by CHC Helicopters, which runs the search and rescue contract out of Sumburgh Airport. The outcry that followed prompted online campaigns and petitions for their reinstatement.
Now it has emerged that Bentley, who was once the chief pilot for Shetland Coastguard when the contract was operated by Bristow Helicopters, has been demoted from captain to co-pilot by successors CHC.
Gladstone, who was a contract worker, is understood to have been told by CHC that he will not fly with the company for at least one year as punishment. He is believed to be working elsewhere.
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who championed the campaign in support of the rescue pilots, said: “I am immensely disappointed by the approach taken by CHC in dealing with these pilots.
“It has been, in my view, disproportionate and heavy-handed and not what the community or even the government, which pays for this service, would have wanted to see.
“I am genuinely worried that this treatment of highly respected pilots could ultimately have an adverse effect on the resilience of the search and rescue service.”
Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat deputy chief whip at Westminster, added: “The current operator is on a temporary contract and it is to be hoped that the permanent contractor will ensure that their employees are not treated in this way.”
Bentley, 58, who lives near Sumburgh where the coastguard helicopter is based, and Gladstone have not previously been revealed as the crew involved in April’s meat pick-up. Carmichael refused to name the pair, referring to them only as “among the best-recognised faces of Oscar Charlie and search and rescue operations”.
He said: “The public sympathy in the Northern Isles is fairly and squarely behind the pilots.
“These are people who are a valued part of our community, and unfair treatment of them is something that will not be left unchallenged.
“There are a number of people in the Northern Isles, and around the world, who owe their lives to the skill, professionalism and bravery of these helicopter crews.”
Footage of the Shetland-based helicopter landing near Craigie’s butchers in the east of mainland Orkney to pick up the meat became an online hit.
Mobile phone footage – which was later removed from YouTube – showed two crew members getting out of the helicopter and walking to the butchers, where they picked up a bag of Orkney beef reported to be worth £400.
After suspending the pilots, a CHC spokeswoman said: “We expect high standards of professionalism from all our employees and, if we find these have not been met, we will take the appropriate action.
“While the aircraft was previously engaged in a training exercise, it was operating a non-revenue flight at the time of the incident in question.”
The company would not comment last week, other than to confirm that its investigations had been completed. Bentley did not wish to comment.
CHC’s actions prompted an immediate outcry in the Northern Isles, with online campaigns supported by more than 7,000 followers.
At the time, Thorfinn Craigie, the butcher who delivered the order, defended the pilots, saying: “I think the whole thing has been totally blown out of proportion.
“The guys are doing a fantastic job. They risk their necks every day of their working lives to save folk. I am absolutely gutted. The guys did absolutely nothing wrong. We are only a matter of miles from the airport and on the flight path.
“They made no detour at all. If anything they were trying to save some money, I would say. It took a minute and a half to land, get the stuff and go. They weren’t wasting time – they were just in, out and away.”
Bentley has been involved in hundreds of rescue operations, flying tens of thousands of miles. He was pilot of Oscar Charlie during the search for survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, which claimed 167 lives.
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