HMS Illustrious crew miss Christmas to deliver aid

Aid on board HMS Illustrious will be delivered by helicopter as Jonah Fisher reports

When the decision was taken to deploy HMS Illustrious to the Philippines it was patrolling for pirates off the coast of Somalia.

It was planned for Britain's only working aircraft carrier to spend two weeks more in the Indian Ocean before turning for home.

All being well, Lusty - as the ship is affectionately known- would have arrived back in Portsmouth on 13 December.

So, for most of the 950 people on board, the order to go to the assistance of those affected by Typhoon Haiyan meant a difficult phone call back home.

Hundreds of plans for a family Christmas were cancelled at a stroke as the crew were told they weren't going to be home until early January.

Lieutenant Commander Richie Hewitt felt it more than most. The ship's navigator has just become a father for the first time.

Richie Hewitt Lt Cdr Richie Hewitt will miss his son's first Christmas

"When I tell my son why I missed his first Christmas, I will tell him it's because the people of the Philippines needed our help," he tells me stoically, from his cabin near the bridge.

Having flown home to witness the birth of baby Oliver in Devon, Lt Cdr Hewitt re-boarded the ship in Singapore and has since then been plotting its route past Malaysia to the western islands of the Philippines.

The partners of navy officers get used to the separation he tells me, as he flicks through some pictures of a smiling Oliver on a tablet computer.

"We've got emails and phone calls - when they work", he says with a rueful shrug.

The fact that this time they were responding to a clear humanitarian emergency had, he said, made it easier for families to understand.

Helicopter aid delivery

The latest estimates are that more than 5,000 people died and almost 4.5 million lost their homes

On board HMS Illustrious is 500 tonnes of aid, most of it bought in a frenetic three-day shopping spree in Singapore.

There are 100 tonnes of rice, plastic sheeting and water containers. Some items have a very British feel: 5,000 tins of pineapple, 9,840 tins of sardines and 10,080 tins of corned beef.

On the way from Singapore the crew have been working in teams in the huge hangar, putting together family-sized bundles of food and supplies which can be carried beneath helicopters.

Just over two weeks since the typhoon struck, most of the worst hit urban areas like Tacloban are now receiving reasonable amounts of assistance. The focus of HMS Illustrious' efforts will be to reach places that have so far received very little.

"We're going to the western islands of the Philippines," Abigail Perry from the Department for International Development told me.

"What we know is that some assistance has already been provided in this area - but we are concerned that there are some isolated communities that have received very minimal assistance."

Daring to leave

As HMS Illustrious arrived off the coast of the Philippines it met up with the destroyer HMS Daring.

Cdr Angus Essenhigh from HMS Daring said that HMS Illustrious would increase aid capacity "ten-fold"

Daring was one of the first to respond to the typhoon and has spent two weeks providing emergency assistance.

With HMS Illustrious much better equipped for handling large quantities of aid, HMS Daring now leaves the Philippines and will head to Japan.

"The utility of a ship is that we can get out to these outlying islands and really help them." Angus Essenhigh, the commander of HMS Daring, told me. His crew of 250 men and women have been delivering much needed supplies both by helicopter and by sea.

"On the mainland we are seeing a lot of the service provisions returning to normal, power is being restored and roofs are going on.

It's expected that it will take two or three weeks for HMS Illustrious to deliver all of its load. Only then will the crew begin their much delayed journey home.

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