End of the line for search and rescue at RAF Boulmer

Search and Rescue Sea King helicopter based at 202 Squadron RAF Boulmer.
Search and Rescue Sea King helicopter based at 202 Squadron RAF Boulmer.

A US-based firm is to take on the country’s Search and Rescue helicopter service, which is currently carried out by bases such as RAF Boulmer.

On Tuesday, the Department for Transport signed a £1.6billion contract with Bristow Helicopters Ltd to provide the service from 2016.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “Our Search and Rescue helicopter service plays a crucial role, saving lives and providing assistance to people in distress on both land and on sea.

“With 24 years of experience providing Search and Rescue helicopter services in the UK, the public can have great confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first-class service with state-of-the-art helicopters.”

Under the new contract, 22 helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK, but the nearest to north Northumberland will be Humberside or Glasgow (Prestwick).

MP Sir Alan Beith said: “The RAF has kept decades-old Sea King helicopters going with remarkable skill, but search and rescue needs modern aircraft and the purpose of these long-expected plans is to make sure that the service’s needs are met.”

But Alnwick councillor Gordon Castle, also a former RAF Group Captain, expressed concerns, saying: “Personally I find it very sad and I worry about the effect on RAF Boulmer because the economy in and around Alnwick really depends on it.

“I know that Boulmer will not be made unviable, but it certainly reduces its critical mass. Nobody can pretend it’s not a worry.

“The standard of the service may be as good, but there will be teething problems. The military services set very high standards.”

An RAF Boulmer spokeswoman said: “Whatever the future for Search and Rescue helicopters, there are no plans for RAF Boulmer to close.

“RAF Boulmer is the hub of the RAF Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) Force, which plays a vital role in homeland defence and is manned 24/7 in support of national Quick Reaction Alert procedures. Also situated at RAF Boulmer is the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management; the School is recognised worldwide as a centre of excellence for providing Tactical Airspace Battle Management training for British Armed Forces, NATO and other foreign national military personnel.”