CRHnews - RAF Rescue Sea King farewell at Clacton Air Show 2014.
The Royal Navy is celebrating its 60th year of search and rescue operations in the UK (the RAF marked its 70th anniversary last year), writes Steven Morris and Severin Carrell
The Guardian, Thursday 31 January 2013
Both services have fantastic histories and are packed with great characters.
But the days of their distinctive, and much loved, grey and navy helicopters, and the yellow RAF ones, are numbered.
This spring (2013) the Department for Transport is due to award a 10-year £3bn contract to a private company or companies to run SAR services in the UK.
There is sadness in the Navy and RAF that from 2016 a service they are hugely proud of will go private. Among other groups involved in search and rescue there are concerns that a commercial operation will be different to the tried and tested military one, and that fundamental changes are being rushed through without consultation.
While Thompson and the crew had a debrief at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Lieutenant Commander Stu Cantellow led the way to a hangar where mechanics were working on some of 771 Squadron's eight Sea Kings.
These machines are one of the main reasons the government gives for privatising the service.
The Sea Kings came into service in the early 70s and are due to be retired in March 2016.
Cantellow said it was increasingly difficult to keep them in operation; for every hour in the air they need 30 hours of maintenance, and spares, particularly for the tail rotors, are harder to come by.
To extend the life of the 18 Sea Kings in the eight military search and rescue bases for two years would cost £300m.
Commander Graham "Sharky" Finn, national head of Royal Navy search and rescue, said the Sea Kings came into service in the year he was born. "I've been told I'm an old fart so that must make the aircraft an old fart," he said.
The government also says, following its experiences in Afghanistan, that the Ministry of Defence no longer believes it gains "operational advantage" from military personnel doing search and rescue work in the UK.
"The reality is the military moves on," said Finn. "We're in a period of redefining the military, not just through defence cuts but redefining what it is we are delivering."
Finn said the service had provided great publicity for the armed services. "It's a bit like seeing guardsmen in London or the Red Arrows," he said. "In the past it's been very good PR for the Royal Navy and the RAF."
It certainly has been. The military search and rescue teams respond to about 2,000 callouts a year. Last year Culdrose was scrambled 249 times and helped rescue 235 people.
Shouts included the disastrous Fastnet yacht race of 1979 when 21 people died but more than 100 were rescued, and the Boscastle floods in 2004 when about 150 people were saved.
Tales abound of lesser-known acts of bravery, such as that of Chief Petty Officer Dave Rigg who, after being winched down on to a Spanish ship 150 nautical miles off Land's End, stemmed the blood gushing out of a sailor cut by a flying metal cable by binding his wound with kitchen cling film before winching him up to a Sea King.
Finn said the new services would be just as good: the helicopters better, the crews as professional. "You'd be doing a disservice to civilian pilots to suggest they wouldn't go as far as military pilots. The ethos is saving life. It's highly likely people here will be serving in the future capability."
Many military jobs will be affected. At Culdrose, 771 Squadron has about 50 crew, including pilots, observers and winch people, as well as more than 100 engineers, military and civilian. It employs civil servants, logisticians and survival equipment specialists.
# Credit to MS for the close-ups and my thanks to the lads on the fishing platform on Clacton Pier for their kind assistance.
# Bass band theme royalty free by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons "Attribution 3.0"
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