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Mountain rescue pilot awarded medal

Lieutenant Commander Craig Sweeney Photo: Press Association

A Royal Navy pilot from North Yorkshire has been awarded a medal recognising his courage in saving a stricken climber.

Lieutenant Commander Craig Sweeney, from Harrogate, has received the Air Force Cross for leading the rescue of a walker in Argyll in blizzard conditions, plummeting temperatures and pitch darkness.

The pilot described the mission to uplift Gareth Bradley on 3,074ft (937m) Beinn Sgulaird near Oban as one of the most challenging rescues he has ever undertaken.

The crew from HMS Gannet in Prestwick, Ayrshire, flew their Sea King helicopter to the aid of Mr Bradley, who had a broken ankle, on December 18, 2011.

I am very honoured, humbled and proud to receive this award. It was a thorough team effort throughout and it reflects the efforts of all on board that day, not just me.

It was intense flying which relied on dozens of years of the whole crew's experience and expertise, and really full-on team work.

I had trained and worked with my winchman of that day all around the world and, most notably, had practised the technique both in the Arctic conditions of Norway and the desert sands of Afghanistan.

It all led to us being able to get the job done safely and as quickly as possible in some of the worst conditions we had experienced.

– Lieutenant Commander Craig Sweeney

Mr Bradley, an engineering lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Perth, said:

I am very grateful to all those involved who risked their safety to assist me.

The fact that my rescue was successful was a credit to all involved.

They were amazing, very professional, they reassured me and talked me through exactly what was happening.

If it wasn't for these guys I might not be here today. I was extremely relieved to see that helicopter and the aircrewman and mountain rescuers who were winched down to me.

I pass on my thanks, once again, to Lieutenant Commander Sweeney and his crew.

– Gareth Bradley

HMS Gannet's Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Andy Drodge said:

Sweeney demonstrated exceptional levels of leadership, grit and composure enabling him to fly the most demanding sortie of his career.

He constantly reassured his team and never once did he fly in a manner that put the aircraft in danger.

In doing so it allowed his team to have absolute confidence in his conduct and decisions, thereby giving focus to the rescue.

The rescue of the climber, stranded 2400ft (732m) up, in cloud, on a harsh winter night required outstanding airmanship and courage.

– Lieutenant Commander Andy Drodge

The pilot joined HMS Gannet in December 2010 and lives close to the unit in Alloway with his wife and three children.

This year marks his last in senior service and he will make his final flight at the end of April.

Mr Bradley has not been put off climbing and instead has been inspired to help others.

He previously worked at Liverpool's John Moores University but moved north of the border to pursue his love of walking and climbing in the Scottish mountains.

He said he hopes to join a mountain rescue team in the near future.