NAVY NEWS, JANUARY 2012 Civvies to take over SAR role
THIS is a sight which in just a few years will be no more: an aircrewman from 771 Naval Air Squadron lifting a downed aviator
safety from the Channel. Come 2016, this is a mission which will be
performed by civilians, the Government has determined.
More than half a century of search and rescue missions by Naval aviators will come to an end in four years’ time as civilians take over the vital service. The Department for Transport announced that it will take over responsibility for helicopter search and rescue around the UK – merging a service currently provided by the Fleet Air Arm, RAF and Coastguard. In the case of the Royal Navy, the lifesaving is
performed by 771 NAS based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall and HMS Gannet in Prestwick, near Ayr – the busiest search and rescue helicopter unit in the country. It is a service which was born after World War 2, largely to pluck crew from aircraft which went down at sea.
Since then, the mission has grown to embrace
saving all life at sea – as well as those in difficulty on land; the majority of sorties flown by Gannet’s Sea Kings are over the mountains of western Scotland, rescuing walkers and climbers. Crews say the rescue missions they fly are the most challenging – and dangerous – outside a war zone. But with the veteran Sea Kings due to retire by early 2016, the Government has been looking for some time to combine the UK’s search and rescue operations under the SAR Harmonisation initiative. In 2010 it picked a consortium to provide the service, flying a new helicopter crewed by a mix of civilians and Service personnel.
That contract was cancelled last February since when the Department for Transport and MOD have been looking at the future of SAR provision.
Transport Secretary Justine Greening told MPs that her department would take over the service, which will be fully civilianised, provided from ten bases instead of the existing 12.
With a fleet of modern helicopters, the service required can be provided from ten full-time bases which means that RAE Boulmer in Northumberland and the Coastguard helicopter base at Portland will no longer be needed. “The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force crews
have shown great dedication and professionalism in delivering an exemplary Search and Rescue service
Picture: LA(Phot) Dave Sterratt, RNAS Culdrose
and Gannet’s CO Lt Cdr Debdash Bhattacharya. “And this did make flying in the dark quite tricky. One minute we could be in relatively clear air and the next it was almost white out. “There were occasions where we were forced to fly
by radar alone, as, even with our night vision goggles, we had lost all visual references. “Our observer, Lt Alex Stevenson, controlled the aircraft’s position with reference to the radar during these periods, talking my co-pilot Lt Mark Wielopolski and me into the safest area and was essentially our eyes for parts of the journey. “And, on approach into Arran, we encountered some turbulence from the mountains.” Once on the ground, the retrieval team was rushed to the hospital at Lamlash to stabilise the patient before getting her ready to transfer to Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock. The Sea King team took the opportunity to fly back to Prestwick briefly to refuel, before being alerted to return to Arran by the Coastguard once the woman had been stabilised. She was successfully delivered to Crosshouse where she was kept in for observation. It was the second delivery of the night to the
for many years, and we owe them all great thanks for this,” Ms Greening said.
“Looking forward, we are confident that, building on nearly 30 years of civilian service provided under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, a fully civilian service will be able to maintain the same standards in the future.”
By civilianising the search and rescue world, Ms Greening said military air and ground crews would be released to focus on front-line duties – although until the new set up is in place, Naval fliers will continue to
perform their rescue duties. Work is now under way to study the options for the employment of Naval aircrew, engineers and maintainers in the Sea King community. The Government intends to award the contract for the replacement service early next year. In the meantime, the lifesaving goes on.. Within days of Ms Greening’s announcements, a
Gannet crew faced one of its most challenging sorties of 2011, battling through Scottish snowstorms to rescue a woman on the island of Arran.
What should have been a mere 20-minute hop to the city
complicated venture with the distinctive red and grey Sea King forced to fly down to 200ft and follow the Clyde into Glasgow in order to avoid the blizzard and freezing conditions on higher ground. As a result, the journey took twice as long.
centre became a more
The four-strong crew was scrambled to pick up a consultant and nurse from the Emergency Medical Retrieval Team at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow.
Kilmarnock infirmary for the duty crew, which had evacuated a man with a leg injury from the ship MV North Sea Giant in the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Stranraer. On this mission, the aircrew were again faced with dense snow clouds and strong wind, though, with the rough seas, this time there was also a pitching ship to contend with. Hovering a matter of 10-15ft above the ship’s deck, CPO Jason Bibby, the team’s aircrewman and paramedic, was winched down to the casualty, where he was able to stabilise the patient before transferring him back into the Sea King.
Gannet were also called upon when the worst storm in a decade bashed Scotland in mid-December.
The helicopter then faced a hard slog into bands of low cloud, freezing conditions, driving snow and a 30-knot wind from the north-west on its way to the Clyde island.
“We were pretty much flying under and around bands of snow clouds throughout,” explained the pilot
A Sea King was despatched to Loch Muick – about half a dozen miles from Balmoral – to search for five missing walkers. In conditions described by the aircrew as “reasonably challenging” – gusts up to 30kts, temperatures below zero and a good 2ft of snow on the ground – the helicopter scoured
the area, investigating remote huts, for signs of the missing ramblers, while on the ground police and mountain rescue teams did the same. In the end, the quintet were found safe and well about four miles from the loch near Glen Doll.
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