This is a landmark year for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in that it is celebrating 70 years of conducting search and rescue (SAR) operations over land and sea around the UK (1941–2011). Disappointingly, it is also facing up to the potential end of its involvement in this activity.
Although the Soteria Consortium (comprised of CHC Helicopter, Thales UK and the Royal Bank of Scotland) had been selected at the end of 2010 to take over the SAR-Helicopter (SAR-H) contract under a private finance initiative (PFI), the British Government was left with no alternative but to overturn the appointment when it was discovered that a CHC employee had received sensitive information from a military source during the bid process.
The result of this decision has been to create a dilemma regarding the future of the SAR Force. With the SAR-H contract now presumably needing to be re-bid, the short-term continuation of the Sea King fleet in terms of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) also needs to be revisited as out-of-service dates had been set around 2017. This has a knock-on effect in terms of the entire Ministry of Defence Sea King fleet, as the type is also in operated with the Royal Marine Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), which was supposed to exchange its Sea Kings for RAF AgustaWestland AW101 Merlins. These in turn had been freed up when the decision was made this summer to buy another 14 CH-47 Chinook helicopters from Boeing to expand the RAF’s support helicopter capability. Maintaining a small number of Sea Kings for the SAR Force would present the MoD with an expensive bill, not what it needs at a time when defense budgets are being slashed with frightening regularity as the government tries to handle the budget deficit it inherited from the previous Labor administration.
The most immediate need has been for the Department for Transport (DfT) to create something of an emergency contract for the continuity of the Maritime Coastguard Agency’s (MCA) helicopters, as its contract with CHC Helicopters expires in 2012—a date deliberately timed so that the RAF, Royal Navy and MCA fleets could all be wound-down at the same time as the PFI contract took over and new Sikorsky S-92 aircraft came into service. This Gap SAR Helicopter Service contract was put out for tender in July (the S-92 fleet is earmarked to be transferred to the Republic of Ireland) and is planned to run for six years (with a one-year extension option). The four bidders for this Gap SAR contract are Bond Offshore, Bristow, CHC Helicopter and lesser-known Ipod Consortium (comprised of Era Helicopters and British International). As the bid deadline was early October, the submissions have been under consideration by the DfT and an announcement is expected by mid-January 2012. Bidders could elect to provide a service for the southern bases—Lee-on-Solent and Portland—or the northern bases at Isle of Lewis and the Shetland Islands, or both north and south. The total value of the contract for the total coverage area is estimated by the DfT at around £200-£250 million ($315-393 million).
Away from this confusion, the annual RAF SAR conference, held at the SAR headquarters, RAF Valley, Anglesey, went ahead as planned in early October 2011. Group Capt. Frazer Nicholson, the current SAR Force Commander, hosted the event and was eager to pay tribute to all who had gone before. The conference was told that in its history, SAR personnel had been awarded six George Medals (usually a civil award for “great acts of bravery,” but one that can also be granted to military personal for similar acts that were performed when not in the face of an enemy. Up to 1993 (when it was discontinued), SAR personnel also received 51 Air Force medals in recognition of their bravery.
Speakers this year represented a diverse range of organizations. Gary Parsons of the Morecombe Bay Search and Rescue spoke about operating hovercraft out in the bay, where in 2004, 21 Chinese cockle pickers were drowned by the rapidly incoming tide. The volunteer search and rescue unit serves the bay, located on the shoreline of northwest England. Its tides are notorious, and to increase the organization’s ability to perform rescues it has just bought airboats from the U.S. (more akin to powering tourists around sites such as the Everglades in Florida), but in this case excellent for going out into the bay over saturated sand/quicksand.
In addition to other speakers that included Ian Rideout, Operations Director, British Red Cross in Northern Scotland, Warrant Officer Karl Wightman from the UK’s Defence SERE Training Organization, and Jean-Charles Cornillou, technical expert from the French Ministry of Transport, who outlined the country’s SAR operations, taking into account France’s diverse overseas territories including La Reunion and New Caledonia in the Pacific, as well as French Guyana and French Polynesia.
Commander Bill Sasser with the U.S. Coast Guard addressed the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina (and subsequently Hurricane Rita), the twin storm systems that caused so much damage and flooding to large parts of New Orleans and the neighboring southern coast areas. This area was around 90,000 square miles with storm surge destruction recorded up to 12 miles inland.
One of the main problems during the rescue effort was: “Where do you take people you have just rescued in an area devastated on such a scale?” The nearest unaffected cities were around 70 miles away so immediate safe haven areas were classed as lily pads—freeway bridges, higher areas of dry land—somewhere that would be a little safer and could be massed ready for the next stage (whenever that came). He said that the difference between the Coast Guard aircraft—some of which returned back to station immediately on the tail of the storm after flying out of its path—and ‘Big Army’ aircraft that flew in later, was the number of crews. USCG had several crews per aircraft that could be rotated whereas the Army aircraft flew in with one crew. When they reached the end of their flying time and needed some rest, the aircraft went down as well until they were rested and ready to go again.
Other problems included the need to de-conflict aircraft from different organizations; the different communications systems between the various rescue agencies; and sometimes a lack of mutual understanding and cultural differences in how to manage tasks and define success.
Sgt. Chris Bradshaw, a member of 202 Squadron, gave a gritty description of his four-month tour in Afghanistan earlier this year (March to July). Bradshaw, a SAR crewman, joined the standing CH-47 Chinook’s Immediate Response Team based out of Camp Bastion in Helmand Province as a paramedical with the onboard Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT). This is a four-person medical unit that is despatched with every IRT call and comprises a doctor, nurse and two paramedics. Basically, having a Chinook fully equipped to cope with casualties as soon as it lands cuts down the Golden Hour waiting time for badly injured troops. The medically equipped Chinook means that badly wounded soldiers can be anesthetized and stabilized with blood and plasma as soon as the aircraft lands. He also praised the small party of RAF Force Protection soldiers that fly on every mission to protect the medical team: “They really got stuck in every time,” said Bradshaw, adding that they also got “hands-on in the aircraft helping us to save lives.”
Bradshaw also praised the ever-present AH-64D Apache escort that always accompanies each IRT Chinook mission. Usually two aircraft, he described the Apache as “eyes-on all the time and absolutely awesome in support.” Its only drawback was the extra time needed to get airborne due to the complexity of the aircraft and its systems, and its lack of pace compared to the Chinook.
But in the current British Area of Operations, which has shrunk over recent years, most casualties can be reached in little over 10 minutes flying time. Bradshaw undertook five different pre-deployment courses before going to Afghanistan which, he said, included everything from home to deal with battlefield trauma to how to operate on a helicopter, and the obvious SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) course.
A number of presentations were made to SAR Force personnel at the end of the conference. Master Aircrew Chris Bodium received a clasp to his Long Service and Good Conduct (LSGC) medal. The clasp is only received 15 years after the award of the LSGC. Bodium spent the first few years of his career on Nimrod Maritime Patrol aircraft of 201 Squadron flying a total of 2,200 hours. In 1988 he moved over to SAR operating on the Wessex Mk2 helicopter before exchanging that for a Sea King. During his career he has taught all aspects of SAR. Flight Lt. Mike Castle, a qualified helicopter instructor, also received a Commander in Chief Commendation among others who were mentioned.