When Jerry Grayson came out of the Royal Navy he was 25 years old, a helicopter pilot and an eight-year veteran of the Fleet Air Arm.
The youngest pilot to serve in the RN at 25 he was also its most decorated peacetime pilot in the history of the service – among awards he was presented with the Air Force Cross by the Queen and received the Maritime Medal of Honour (1st class) for his rescue work on a sinking Greek ship.
He was also a key pilot during the notorious Fastnet race in 1979 – Britain’s version of the Sydney-Hobart – in which 300 boats started, only 85 finished and the rescue crews pulled 135 sailors from the raging sea.
Fifteen sailors still drowned in the once-in-a-lifetime storm.
Jerry’s life has been a professional adrenalin rush – after the first Gulf War when Saddam’s retreating army set fire to Kuwait’s oilfields he was hired to fly through the soaring flames for a German film director looking for an “other world” setting.
He has rescued a wounded fighter pilot who had ditched at sea and a critically ill crewman from the rolling deck of a nuclear-armed submarine that was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Soviet navy.
But three years after he left the service the shooting and the rescuing became brutally real with the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina.
Even today you can sense how disconnected he felt when the people he had served with went to war while he stayed at home.
“It felt strange, I had stayed at home and they went into a war zone, I could see it on TV but that was as close as I got,” Jerry said.
“Yes, we did a lot of search and rescue but the military train for a purpose and that was it,” he said.
In 2500 hours of flying with the RN, Jerry and his crewmates saved more than 70 lives on 120 rescue missions.
But wars and storms aside Jerry Grayson has turned those early years with the navy into an incredible career and his adventures didn’t stop when he left the navy.
He has set up Helifilms, a production company specialising in footage shot from helicopters.
And his company was in big demand – working on the sets of films such as Black Hawk Down, An Inconvenient Truth and the James Bond film A View to A Kill.
“First and foremost I joined the Navy at 17 to fly choppers but the next step to films was something that came to me in my last six months,” Jerry said.
“At that time the RN had given a BBC crew total access on board for six months to produce a sort of fly-on-the-wall documentary about life at sea,” he said.
“When we were not busy rescuing I was busy learning how to fly for the camera, which is radically different to flying for real.
“I was seeing up close and personal how scenes were put together, what the chopper had to do to be in the right place at the right time and with the most impact.
“In real work you are going straight at a rescue scene but in a movie you have to come at it so the viewer can see more of you and what you are doing, you sort of work sideways.”
His movie work drew the attention of other media – Jerry worked on the aerial coverage of the Athens Olympics and Melbourne Commonwealth Games and then flew over the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The flight over Kuwait’s burning oilfields was hardly what your everyday worker gets to do – director Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness was a story from the perspective of an almost alien observer, the film was shot in such a way as to emphasise the terrain’s cataclysmic strangeness.
He has worked on music videos with everybody from Paul McCartney to John Denver, and hundreds of cinema and TV commercials. Jerry has filmed from the air at the North Pole to the scorching Middle East and across the US and successfully worked with directors such as Ridley Scott and Lord Richard Attenborough.
As Jerry puts it, “flying for the movies is a different sort of buzz – as a rescue pilot when you have a bad day someone dies, as a movie pilot if you have a bad scene you simply do it again”.
“But I have enjoyed all my flying immensely, it is something you are never tired of doing and search and rescue is so radically different to every other type of flying.
“Of course technology has changed a lot of search and rescue these days – back when I was doing it you found life rafts and sinking ships and downed pilots with a paper map spread across your knees, a lot of instinct and a big slice of luck.
“Now it’s all GPS and technology that does make things so much safer and easier.
“The thing about it is you never stop learning.”
And like every other industry Jerry’s film company is becoming a victim of progress – where people once had to use helicopters for aerial shooting they can now use drones.
“They are smaller, can fly lower without the turbulence issues and are much, much cheaper to run,” Jerry said.
“But what we have been finding is that people know all the skills to simply fly a drone but have absolutely no idea how to use them correctly for setting up shots – so we have now branched out to teaching in that area,” he said.
So what is the connection between a gun pilot whose workplace used to be the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, or some of the world’s most dangerous settings and the quiet little town of Mia Mia, where he now lives with wife Sara.
“It’s a funny story, we had come to a wedding in Seymour and then were driving around the area when we saw this block in Mia Mia for sale and we immediately fell in love with it,” Jerry laughed.
“It’s a long way from the UK and Hollywood but it is a pretty special place and we just love it here,” he said.
“And if we are going to move more into teaching the next generation of ‘pilots’ on how to create images from their drones – that they can do more than just take a selfie from the sky – we couldn’t think of a place we would rather be.”
Jerry describes himself as an ordinary bloke who’s had an extraordinary career.
Forget the ‘had’ because Jerry is still living the dream.
If any McIvor Times readers purchase Jerry’s latest book he would be happy for them to private message him via this Facebook link, he’ll meet them in Heathcote and sign copies of the book for them.