A MAJOR rescue operation was launched last night to locate a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter that crashed into the sea 25 miles off the Cornish coast with four crew members on board.
The helicopter, based at the Royal Naval air station in Yeovilton, Somerset, was sent out on a search and rescue mission off the Cornish coast early yesterday evening. Contact was lost when it was 15 miles south-east off the Lizard peninsula.
Three other military helicopters and a French navy Falcon maritime patrol aircraft were involved in the search, for the missing helicopter and crew, said a spokesman for RAF Kinloss in Scotland, the UK’s co-ordination centre for offshore rescue.
The spokesman said: "Just after 7pm we lost contact with the Lynx and we have ordered a major search.
"The helicopter had been investigating reports of a man overboard."
A spokeswoman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said the Falmouth Coastguard had been called out at 5:45pm by two Royal Navy warships, the frigates Montrose and St Albans, and had requested the launch of the RNLI lifeboat.
She said: "The two warships believed that they heard cries in the water."
The Lynx helicopter had been assisting in this search when it went missing.
The spokeswoman said that while this initial search was still continuing there had been a "thorough check in regard of other vessels in the area", none of which had reported anyone missing.
"It is a little bit of a mystery at this stage," the spokeswoman said.
The Kinloss spokesman added that a French warship was in the area and had accounted for its personnel.
In a statement the MCA said: "Two warships are currently searching for what may be missing persons 19 miles east of Lizard Point.
"The alarm was raised when two Royal Navy ratings heard cries for help."
Last night two navy Sea King helicopters from Culdrose had been sent to join the search for the missing Lynx, and a Sea King helicopter from Chivenor in Devon was also taking part using infrared equipment.
The Kinloss spokesman said: "They can see anyone who is in the water. It shows up as a white image. That is what they are desperately searching for at the moment."
The spokesman added: "It is dark and that is a major obstacle in a search like this."
It is believed the Lynx helicopter was in the immediate vicinity when the emergency call initially went out regarding the reports of someone in the sea.
An aviation expert said that a Lynx helicopter is not normally deployed in search and rescue operations.
David Lawcroft, from Flight International, said: "The Lynx has been in service with the British military for a long time now. It is one of the fastest helicopters in the world.
"Most of the smaller British Royal Navy ships have one on board for reconnaissance missions, but the strange thing is it is not usually used for search and rescue, which is normally handled by larger aircraft like the Sea King."
The most serious incident involving a Lynx was in 1989, when nine men from the Royal Navy were killed in a crash in Kenya.