Military, Public Service

RAF Stages Final SAR Conference

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | December 8, 2014
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Sikorsky Sea King. Photo courtesy RAF

The final Search and Rescue (SAR) conference organized by the Royal Air Force was held during early November at RAF Valley at the far tip of northwest Wales, on the island of Anglesey. In March 2015, the UK will begin the process of handing over responsibility for SAR to the new civil contractor, Bristow Helicopters.

Bristow will gradually take responsibility over the following year by placing pairs of S-92 and AW189 helicopters at 10 bases, a process that will start with the newest Humberside and Inverness in purpose-built facilities that all follow the same design. The $2.5 billion (£1.6 billion) government SAR contract, signed in March 2013, aims to be at least as good as the military service that it is replacing. Its target is 98 percent availability and Sam Willenbacher, Bristow’s director of UK SAR, said that most of the personnel were now in place.


Group Captain Steve Bentley, the RAF SAR Force commander, confirmed too that most of the personnel under his command now had their career plans in place either with the new operator or elsewhere in the RAF.

During his opening address, Bentley said that the tale of the Sea King, in all its variants, has been a testament to the bravery and skill of its RAF and Royal Navy (RN) crews, both over land and sea. With the theme of the conference focusing on the Technical Edge Looking Forward, Bentley traced the arrival of the Westland Whirlwind (a British license-built version of the U.S. Sikorsky S-55/H-19 Chickasaw) in the late 1950s and its 90-knot speed and 300-mile range. This was replaced by the Sea King Mk3 (again a British version of the Sikorsky S-61), which brought with it all weather capability at night and over the water 24/7 that had not been possible before. The arrival in the 1990s of night vision capability and EO/IR devices meant a massive leap in capability over land, he add-ed.

Sue Jarvis, now a Bristow pilot but once a commander of the RAF’s 202 Squadron, reported on her training in Italy with the AW189 which she will fly when it is introduced into service. Between ground school training, the Level D AW189 simulator and live flying, she said that the auto hover and mission management system “were brilliant” and would take SAR operations to a new level.

CSAR in the USAF

Photo courtesy RAF

The first guest speaker, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ahrens of the United States Air Force (USAF) is the chief HH-60G Pave Hawk evaluator, 56th rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath in the UK. The 56th RQS (Jolly Green) based there is the only U.S. squadron with aircrew, pararescue and medical teams within one single unit.

Ahrens spoke about the USAF’s Combat SAR (CSAR) training challenges and future requirements. Having flown in extreme conditions when based in Iceland and as part of special operations forces, he flew a variety of missions around the world including participating in the mission to rescue a downed jet pilot in Bosnia who was eventually rescued by another crew from his unit.

He was mission commander in the June 2009 rescue of an injured Burmese seaman on the container vessel Pascha 415 miles into the Atlantic to the west of Ireland. Alerted by the UK’s Aero-nautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC), his pair of HH-60G helicopters were supported by a package of support aircraft including KC-135R and MC-130P air-to-air refueling aircraft. The weather was terrible except for the brief period when they arrived over the ship to perform the res-cue, when it cleared to blue sky. Ahrens’ crew flew around 1200 miles over 10 hours. The sea-man’s life was saved.

Ahrens said that the USAF CSAR force has in recent times been worked heavily across missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as the Horn of Africa. He said that the USAF CSAR capability, like the SAR Force, was going through transition. He added that recent roles had focused on medical evacuation rather than true full spectrum CSAR missions and that the skills that were associated with that around 15-20 years ago would need to be refreshed and refocused for the new challenge of expeditionary type operations. “It is a long time since we have planned or executed the penetration of defended airspace, and there are only a few people currently around now who can do that,” he said.

That involved training challenges. He pointed out the substantial difference between medical evacuation and CSAR, not only in terms of the flying environment, but also in terms of mission specific communications, time and distance, as well as tactics, techniques and procedures when operating with a CSAR force package.

“In Afghanistan there were forward operating bases (FOBs) so it was never too far to get extra fuel, arms, and back up,” he said. Now, with the prospect of operating anywhere in the world, planning would have to be more focused on time and space (the logistics of getting assets into position and packaging a supporting force).

With the Air Force now confirmed to receive 112 new $7.9 billion rescue helicopters (actually a new version of the one they already operate) ¬¬– the Sikorsky’s CRH-60 will replace the HH-60G - Ahrens said that there was relief following years of litigation over the contract. He noted that the USAF’s use of its own version of the Bell/Boeing CV-22 Osprey with its Special Operations Command (AFSOC) could potentially be configured for use if a large number of casualties needed to be lifted. However the possibility of the two different types of platforms working together was still being examined. A positive note to this was that the AF C-130H refueling aircraft could refuel both the HH-60 and the CV-22 if required through a mix of drogues.

Forward Care Saves Lives

A USAF HH-60G Pave Hawk flies toward the cargo ship Pascha approximately 450 miles off of the west coast of Ireland. Photo courtesy USAF, Sgt. Jay Reinschi

Lieutenant Colonel Harvey Pynn, a military consultant in emergency medicine at the Royal Bristol Infirmary as well as with the Great Western Air Ambulance spoke about recent advances in pre-hospital wilderness emergency care. He said that this growing specialty, learned by the military over the last 10-15 years of conflict, was very noticeably being used by soldiers on the ground who had basic medical training and who were making a difference in saving lives. This included hemorrhage control and basic splinting as well as the quick and effective use of applying a tourniquet and keeping the casualty warm.

Pynn completed two tours in Afghanistan with the UK RAF’s Immediate Response Team (IRT) fly-ing in a medically equipped Boeing CH-47 Chinook. As part of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) – comprising a doctor, flight nurse and two paramedics – it was this forward projection of professional medical skills providing resuscitative care at point of wounding and in-transit that had contributed massively to the survival rate of soldiers.

He gave an example of one soldier that had lost three limbs but had survived due to the rapid treatment he received, both on the ground, by the MERT while airborne en-route to the military hospital and by the medical staff who had become very experienced with blast injuries. He said that such a traumatic injury happening in the UK at the time would probably resulted in the casualty’s death.

“Care in back of aircraft got to be at least as good as the resuscitation room in a civilian hospital in UK,” he observed. “We had lots of hands on the patient doing simple things well. While you are not going to get away from some deaths – serious head injury or later complications as a result of the wounding – carrying four bags of plasma and four bags of blood meant that casualties were getting replacement fluids early.”

Equipment for future wilderness medical scenarios included the possibility of automatic compression devices for cardiac arrests, TraneXamic acid injectors (to help blood to clot), lyophilized plasma (powdered – with a shelf life of 30 years) as well as handheld ultrasound tools.

Among several other presentations was a report from Peter Longman, principal engineer with Qinetiq, on the trial of the Hawkowl, a three-year research project into sensor improvement in de-graded environments. Dan Stephens, chief fire officer, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service updated delegates on the progress being made to prepare the UK’s emergency services to meet a variety of complex emergencies through the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Program (JESIP). Exercise Joint Endeavour, staged by JESIP and held this September in Liverpool, involved both an RAF SAR Sea King and a Chinook CH-47 which was used to transport heavy equipment transported in a 5.5 ton urban SAR ISO container.

There was also an interesting account from Commander Phillip Newell on his ship’s involvement in the Search for the Malaysian airliner MH370 that disappeared in the southern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia. While commanding the RN’s survey ship HMS Echo, he was ordered into the area to assist in the international effort to locate the airliner’s black box locator beacon. Throughout the 60-day deployment, they used their towed sensor and acoustic array to try and detect first the sound of the beacon and then the wreckage. However, their transit time meant that they only had six days to locate the beacon before its power was due to run out.

The challenges they faced included severe weather, wildlife sounds, the depth of the sea bed at that part of the ocean, the variation in water temperature all added to the fact of the ongoing uncertainty of where the aircraft had actually gone down (which is still the problem today).

In closing the final conference, Air Vice Marshal Sean Reynolds, commander of No. 2 Group of which the SAR Force is a component, said that he had been impressed with the “business as usual” attitude that the force continued to show as it headed towards its final year of operations. He listed the 2,200 scrambles in the previous year, the 1,796 people assisted and praised the ongoing professionalism of the RAF mountain rescue teams. “You’ve set the bar incredibly high. Keep it high to the end,” he concluded.

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