A Transport Minister has said that the search and rescue (SAR) service to the people of Northumberland will be ‘undiminished’ and may even improve in the future under the new regime, which was launched today at Humberside Airport.
The launch of the civilian UK search and rescue helicopter service was marked this afternoon in a ceremony held at the new SAR base at the airport.
Bristow Helicopters Ltd will operate the service for the UK on behalf of HM Coastguard, taking over from RAF and Royal Navy crews such as 202 Squadron at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland. The company was awarded the 10-year UK contract by the Department for Transport in March 2013 and will deliver the service from ten bases ‘strategically located close to areas of high SAR incident rates’.
These bases will go live in a phased approach from April 1. The first bases to open will be at Humberside - the nearest to north Northumberland along with Glasgow (Prestwick) - and Inverness.
Bristow crews will deliver the with state-of-the-art helicopters, equipped with the latest technology including night vision, mission management and increased onboard medical capabilities.
Today’s ceremony was attended by John Hayes MP, Minister responsible for the Coastguard, Sir Alan Massey, chief executive of the MCA (Marine and Coastguard Agency), representatives from the military and other search-and-rescue organisations who will work with the new service, and a host of invited guests who have been instrumental in preparing the new service.
Mr Hayes, who described the new service as ‘world-class’, did concede that the new operators had a tough act to follow the RAF and Royal Navy service.
However, he told the Gazette: “I’m absolutely confident that the service the people of Northumberland can rely upon will be undiminished and, as time goes on, with improved technology and improved resources, I think it can be more and more effective in terms of dealing with emergencies.”
Sir Alan Massey said: “I am hugely proud that HM Coastguard has been entrusted with the UK’s search and rescue helicopter service. For us this is a continuation of the high-quality service that we have been providing in selected areas of the UK for the last 30 years.
“The RAF and RN have set the bar incredibly high, and I would like to thank them for their service and recognise the outstanding work they have done both inland and on the coast over many decades. We will take their legacy forward with the utmost pride and care.”
Samantha Willenbacher, director of UK Search and Rescue at Bristow Helicopters Ltd, said: “It is an honour to have been chosen to deliver this vital service across the UK. We know this is a service that people rely on in times of great need and we are committed to continuing the great work of the military.
“We have enormous respect for the dedication that our military colleagues have demonstrated in delivering search and rescue over the past 70 years and we have always understood how vital it is that their knowledge and expertise is maintained. We have worked closely with them in preparing for the civilian service to go live and have also welcomed many of them into the new civilian SAR force, including Chief Pilot here at Humberside, Liz Forsyth, a former SAR Commander at RAF Lossiemouth and Pilot Flight Commander at RAF Valley.”
She told the Gazette that she used to fly Sea Kings, like those used at RAF Boulmer, but the new helicopters - Sikorsky S-92s are based at Humberside - are a real step up.
“It’s just a step forward; it’s faster, it’s more modern technology and safety as well,” she said. “It’s 20 years on, if not more, in terms of all the modern equipment, so I wouldn’t go back.
“We can cruise at 145 knots compared to about 115 knots in the Sea King, so we are looking at a difference of around 30/40mph. We will get there faster.”
The UK SAR bases at Caernarfon and Kent will go live on July 1, followed by St Athan on October 1. Prestwick and Newquay will become operational on January 1, 2016, and the remaining three bases at Lee-on-Solent, Sumburgh and Stornoway will follow in 2017.