Offshore survival training pioneer and naval airman

Offshore survival training pioneer and naval airman

Born November 9, 1934 Died July 27, 2014

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Joe Cross, who has died aged 79, found himself rather reluctantly thrust into the safety industry when he really would have preferred to become a photographer.

The decision was taken out of his hands, made on his behalf by his naval superiors, but that unexpected change of course - his "imposed profession" as he called it - set him on a path that would see him emerge as a one of the UK's leading pioneers in maritime safety and survival training.

He was at the helm of Aberdeen's Robert Gordon Institute of Technology (RGIT) survival centre when it introduced the world's first helicopter underwater escape training facility, now mandatory training for offshore workers, later founded the International Association for Safety and Survival Training and was subsequently honoured for his work in the sector with an OBE. However at one point he had seemed destined for yet another completely different career.

As the son of a tradesman, plasterer George Cross and his wife Winifred, he had been expected to follow his father into the building trade. Born in Liverpool, he was educated at schools in Huyton on Merseyside and then embarked on a building course at Bootle Technical College. But he knew that was not where his future lay and soon moved on to work in a telephone manufacturing company where he joined its photography department. He also joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve about the same time and later was inspired to join the Navy full-time, thanks to an advert for the Fleet Air Arm and naval photography jobs.

However, after initial training, the powers that be dashed his plan for a career in photography when they decided he was to become a specialist in safety equipment instead. "Little did I realise that the decision taken to put me in this branch of the service would influence my working life until and after I retired 44 years later," he later acknowledged.

He qualified as Naval Airman 2 Safety Equipment 3, in 1953 and it was whilst based, over the next couple of years, at HMS Gannet naval air station near Londonderry in Northern Ireland that two events took place that would shape the rest of his working life.

The first happened when he was volunteered to take part in a sea trial to test a prototype downed aircrew location beacon. Along with a leading aircrewman, he left a destroyer to carry out the test and discovered the beacon worked perfectly. But as they waited for a search aircraft to find them a squall blew up, bringing heavy seas, wind and lashing rain. As the weather worsened he checked the raft's survival kit only to find that the equipment, including the crucial bailer, was missing. He and his mate were marooned in a flooded raft in a breaking sea.

Fortunately the ship returned, hauled them out, warmed them up and the trial was deemed a success. But Cross observed: "The lesson was learnt, survival at sea or for that matter elsewhere, often will depend on having good reliable and available kit to meet the challenges of a developing crisis."

The second defining moment came within weeks. While working in the safety equipment section he was ordered to the site of an air crash to collect the safety gear involved. He arrived to find the plane had hit a hill with the loss of all the crew. One of those killed was the airman who had been his companion on the recent life raft drama. "That day I grew up quickly and to some extent dedicated myself to doing my best to learn all that I could about my 'imposed profession'," he said.

Various promotions followed and in 1960 he gained the top qualification in safety equipment and the rank of leading airman. By 1965 he was a sub lieutenant, special duties aviation, and appointed to HMS Victorious as assistant flight deck officer/project sight officer.

The following year he became a Fleet Air Arm combat survival and arctic cell officer and in 1970 he was promoted to lieutenant. But by that time he was suffering from cardio vascular disease and had already had a heart attack at the age of just 34. His condition resulted in him being invalided out of the Royal Navy in 1973.

After a season running his own sailing school, Sundog Sailing Holidays, he moved north to Aberdeen to join RGIT's school of navigation as a lecturer in offshore survival. In 1975, just a year after his arrival, he was appointed managing director of the RGIT survival centre. Under his leadership the centre expanded hugely, mushrooming from two staff in a hut by the River Dee to a multi-million pound business, with more than 100 staff training many thousands of workers in the survival skills required for work in the harsh North Sea environment of the energy industry.

It became a major training facility in Aberdeen, developing the first simulator for instructing trainees how to escape from a helicopter under water. There was also a freefall lifeboat training facility in Dundee. Then in 1980 he founded the International Association for Safety and Survival Training, to share best practice in maritime survival training around the world, and remained honorary president until his death.

He also served on the Defence Services Lifesaving Committee, received his OBE in 1986 for services to maritime safety and survival and an honorary MSc from the Council for National Academic Awards in 1991.

He retired in 1996, having been made an honorary Doctor of Technology by Robert Gordon University the previous year. Ironically for a man who was so focused professionally on the issue of survival, he had faced his own personal battle for survival against ill health for most of his life. But it was a situation he countered with good humour, stoicism and a fighting spirit. Once a middle distance runner for Liverpool Harriers in his youth, after his first coronary by-pass he was one of the first members of Inverurie Jogging Club and took up cycling in his 50s.

In retirement he was a keen walker, an active member of Probus, the Fleet Air Arm Association and a passionate supporter of England cricket team.

He is survived by his wife Desna, children Martin, Greig, Desna and Samantha, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.