One of the RAF’s highest bravery awards was presented to a Norfolk helicopter crewman, Mel Ward, who has died aged 69, for saving the lives of sailors aboard a burning tanker.

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The official citation for the Air Force Cross praised the determination, resourcefulness, coolness and courage shown by Master Air Loadmaster Melvyn Ward, of Smallburgh, near North Walsham, in the operation to evacuate the 32 members of the crew of the Orleans on January 24, 1986.

After being presented with his medal by the Queen at a Buckingham Place investiture in July that year, he said: “I am more nervous being here than I was that day. This is probably the most nerve-wracking thing I have ever done.” His family, including his two teenage daughters, were also invited to the ceremony.

Stationed at RAF Coltishall, he was the winchman on the Search and Rescue Sea King of C Flight 202 Squadron, which was scrambled at 7.23am to assist the Orleans, a tanker on fire 65 miles off Great Yarmouth.

In a Force 10 gale, with 30ft foot waves and burning oil on the sea, the Greek tanker was blazing fiercely from amidships towards the stern, where the crew was gathered in thick smoke.

He volunteered to be lowered to the deck where, although even breathing was difficult, he managed to calm and organise the confused and alarmed foreign crew sufficiently to permit four seamen to be winched up to the helicopter.

Hearing loud explosions below deck, and when thick smoke and a snowstorm forced the helicopter to stand off, he urged the crew to jump into the sea – in pairs. The Sea King would then be able to lift survivors from the sea.

When he then jumped some 80ft in the water, none of the crew followed. As conditions allowed the helicopter to hover above the ship, he again volunteered to return to the deck, despite both the danger and having swallowed a quantity of sea water and oil.

Although mobbed by the crew he prepared two seamen for lifting, but during the lift the winch cable caught and broke on a jack staff, leaving the two men suspended over the sea. MALM Ward recovered them by climbing over the rail and dragging them on board.

With the helicopter disabled, he organised the crew to launch a lifeboat and all the occupants were rescued by a nearby rig support vessel.

He also won a Silk Cut Nautical Award for the year’s most outstanding rescue at sea. In November 1986, with fellow crew members, they were presented with an award from the Royal Benevolent Society for Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners.

Also that November, he completed 6,000 flying hours – 3,000 in helicopters - during his 19-year career in the RAF.

He leaves a widow, Sandy, two daughters, and grandchildren. He is survived by a brother.

A funeral service will be held at St Faith’s Crematorium on Thursday, January 2 at 1.15pm.

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