Three More Cheers for Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Search and Rescue

With less than one year to go now before the beginnings of progressive change in how UK helicopter based Search and Rescue (SARS) activities are undertaken, it is I hope right that we should stop a while and reflect on the absolutely brilliant and ongoing work done still being performed by highly trained and dedicated armed forces personnel within the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and by members of the civilian helicopter service, who are under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). First though a reminder of what will soon take over from military operated Search and Rescue services.

Jointly managed by the MCA and the Ministry of Defence and with the Government having abandoned an earlier plan that had envisaged bringing rotary based Search and Rescue into a single entity using both civilian and military aircrews, in 2011 the Coalition Government decided that future UK Search and Rescue activity would be based on a totally civilian based and operated service. To that end, military based Search and Rescue activity will be progressively drawn down through 2015 to 2017 during which time the current 40 plus strong fleet of Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Sea King Mk V helicopters would be stood down and retired. Completion of the Sea King withdrawal process is planned to be completed by March 2016.

With responsibility for the new Search and Rescue (SAR-H) facility passing from MCA and MOD responsibility to the Department of Transport the newly privatised service is intended to be managed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and run by Bristow Helicopters Ltd.  Bristow’s will take over operation of the service from the military on a progressive basis starting in 2015 using a fleet of 22 new helicopters – 11 Sikorsky S-92’s plus 11 AgustaWestland AW189’s.

The value attached to the Bristow Search and Rescue contract was I believe put at around £1.6bn and the number of new jobs likely to be created was I believe put at 350. Balfour Beatty was appointed by Bristow Helicopters as its infrastructure partner responsible for delivery of infrastructure at nine sites including seven new-build search and rescue helicopter bases at commercial airports in Inverness, Manston, Prestwick, Caernarfon, St Athan, Humberside and Newquay. Existing facilities at Stornoway were to be refurbished and Bristow will also make use of an existing MCA facility at Lee-on-Solent.

The current plan envisages that the new service should be fully operational across the whole country by summer 2017. Clearly, many existing and former highly trained members of the current military based Search and Rescue SARS service have already and will be employed by the new service operator, but over time the new operator will need to train a new breed of search and rescue operatives who will not have had the benefit of military training and disciplines.

So much for the planned new, time now to reflect on a military based Search and Rescue (SARS) operation that is still very active. As in previous years, 2014 was to prove no exception in terms of the amount of work presented to Royal Navy and Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter crews on a day by day basis. Operatives crewing Sea King helicopters are of course skilled individuals who well know the risks and dangers of the work that they do. These are highly trained military professionals for which there is nothing within the limits of the capability that they have that they would not be prepared to undertake. The list of missions undertaken by Royal Navy and Royal Air Force crews over the past 70 years of rotary based action would need volumes if it were to be listed as opposed to a single book. It is also worth recording here that this is one aspect of overall UK defence in which the admiration that the crews and the helicopters receive from the public knows absolutely no bounds.

Together with members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) who volunteer and who put their own lives at very considerable risk to help save the lives of others, members of Her Majesty’s Coastguard and the volunteer Mountain Rescue and Air Ambulance service, we are indeed very fortunate to have such extraordinary teams of professionals working twenty-four hours each and every day of the year to help save lives. I would like to believe that the new privatised search and rescue operation will provide the same level of dedication and resolve that has been part of the enduring service provided by military based search and rescue over very many years.

Watching footage of the Royal Navy Sea King Mk V hovering over the beach at Mawgan Porth in Cornwall during the recent surfing tragedy that cost three people their lives was to me a timely reminder of the brilliant job that our rescue services perform. Bravery knows no bounds and to observe some of the previous mission footage and photographs and the risks that they endured in the attempt to save lives is quite amazing.

To the above list of those that provide an excellent service to the public should be added the Lifeguards who, through the main summer holiday months, ensure responsible use of our beaches so that they are safe for all to use and safely enjoy.

Having played a part in fighting the attempt to privatise UK Search and Rescue, and accepting that there can now be no turning back the clock, I am left to hope that what is planned to replace military search and rescue will be every bit as good as what it will replace. I count myself very fortunate to have flown several times over the years with both 771 Naval Air Squadron Sea King Mk 5 search and rescue (SARF) helicopter teams from their base at RNAS Culdrose and also, with members of Royal Air Force 202 Squadron SARF (D Flight) from their base at Lossiemouth on a similar Sea King Mk 5. The teams that fly these venerable yet very well maintained helicopters are as remarkable as they are truly professional and the like of which I doubt we will see again.

For the record Royal Air Force Sea King Mk V helicopters of both 22 and 202 Squadron operate from six locations (22 Squadron from RMB Chivenor (A Flt), Wattisham Airfield (B Flt) and RAF Valley (C Flt) and 202 Squadron from RAF Boulmer (A Flt), RAF Lossiemouth (D Flt) and RAF Leconfield (E Flt). Sea King Mk V Search and Rescue operation by the Royal Navy is conducted from both RNAS Culdrose, Cornwall and from HMS Gannet at Prestwick in Scotland. For land based rescues such as the mountains of Scotland for instance, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy can also call on the services of five Mountain Rescue Teams each of which are manned by core permanent staff supported by around 30 volunteers.

My intent today was not an attempt to analyse the proposed new search and rescue service that will begin operation next year against that of the current hugely successful Sea King based operation. I may regret the change but I accept that it is about to happen and it will, just as the current military based search and rescue arrangements have over many years, receive my full support an backing. In a world dominated by issues of affordability that is foremost to requirement we may hope that the right decision has been made. We will have to wait and see and we must of course not only provide what assistance and support that we can we must also give the new service time to bed in.

I may also hope that many examples of the superb Sea King helicopter and which members of the public are so attached find themselves retired to museums and where the public can repay the huge debt of gratitude that these very fine machines are justifiably owed. Three cheers then for Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Search and Rescue crews and for the venerable Sea King helicopters that they fly!

CHW (London 28th October 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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