Politicians, dignitaries, members of the volunteer rescue services and the public have all paid tribute to the efforts of 202 Squadron as its 40-year stint at RAF Boulmer came to an end yesterday.
The Search and Rescue service has been provided by RAF Boulmer since 1975 and below are various views on the service north Northumberland has received over the past 40 years as well as what the future holds under the new civilian service.
Alnwick said an emotional farewell on Saturday morning as one of the iconic yellow Sea Kings performed a slow flypast over the town. Crowds waved and cheered as the Sea King flew over the Bondgate Tower at 11am and then over Sainsbury’s at the southern end of town.
The crew for the flight were Squadron Leader Iain Macfarlane, Flt Lt Giles Smith, Flt Sgt Andy Roland and Sgt Dylan Burns.
‘A pretty hard act to follow’
Sir Alan Beith was MP for Berwick from 1973 – two years before 202 Squadron moved to RAF Boulmer – until this year, his career mirroring almost exactly SAR operations being run from the base.
“I remember the service moving from RAF Acklington and 202 Squadron has been the public face of the RAF at Boulmer in addition to the fantastic rescue service it provides,” he said.
“They were an enormous support to the local community and went to such great lengths to support schools and appear at community events; they made the RAF a very popular service among the people of Northumberland.
“It has become increasingly difficult to keep their machines flying because they are more than 30 years old and the decision has been made to switch to a civilian service.
“We are on the edge of two areas rather than the base being here as we have had the good fortune to have for so long. There will always be some places that are further away.
“I believe we will be well served by the new Search and Rescue service, but we have had a massive bonus having it in the area. They have maintained a great liaison with the lifeboats, coastguards, all the volunteer rescue services as well as the angling and sailing communities.
“There has been a huge benefit over and above knowing that they are there provide the rescue service. They are a pretty hard act to follow.”
‘The yellow helicopters are loved and recognised’
Coun Gordon Castle, an Alnwick town and county councillor, is a retired RAF Group Captain.
He said: “There can be no doubt that the service provided by 202 Squadron over the years has been magnificent and hugely appreciated, both locally and by those fortunate to have been on its receiving end.
“It has shown the RAF at its very best and the yellow helicopters are loved and recognised by all ages everywhere.
“Operationally, 202 Squadron, along with the entire SAR Service, means excellence, professionalism and bravery as far as humans can deliver. The RAF and Royal Navy set the SAR bar incredibly high.
“It is of course a sad day to see them go from RAF Boulmer, which fortunately still retains another vital UK air defence role, and we are right to reflect on their shining example and record of service.
“The RAF benefited enormously in good public relations and will feel their loss. However, even during my long period of RAF service, it was recognised that Search and Rescue squadrons were engaged primarily on civilian emergencies, not the military ones that they had been established for, and RAF commanders had to balance their operational defence budgets against this essentially non-military task, even while recognising the high operational standards maintained by crews engaged in constant emergency deployments.
“The RAF gets its money out of good aircraft, but the time comes when they all reach the end of their cost-effective life, the Sea King no less than others.
“The decision to move the whole SAR function out of military control has been controversial and there are many who claim that deployments from so far south as Humberside, reinforced by Prestwick in January 2016, may disadvantage emergency cover this far north.
“Of course, time to reach the scene of an emergency is always a factor in every deployment, but that depends where the incident occurs and the SAR service cannot be sited nearest every point of call-out.
“The new fleet comprises more capable aircraft and we are assured this will result in an improved service, with faster, better equipped aircraft and more comprehensive national range and hotspot cover.
“I trust the authorities to deliver this and there is no doubt they will be under close scrutiny, but I hope we do not rush to ascribe every future tragedy in the hills or at sea to the absence of locally-based helicopters. The new system must be given time to show its worth.
“Meanwhile, we salute those who have served on 202 Squadron over its distinguished past 40 years.”
‘We have new challenges ahead’
Ian Clayton, lifeboat operations manager for Seahouses RNLI, said: “Our concerns for the future are that we have been spoiled in recent years in having an aircraft so close to where we are.
“The flight time is just seven minutes from Seahouses and the Farne Islands where we have had a lot of incidents with divers over the years.
“Obviously we have new challenges ahead because the aircraft are based so much further away.
“It’s always been a very welcome sight particularly if we have someone who is very ill or needs serious medical attention as while all our crew members are casualty-care trained, we are not paramedics.
“They will be a great miss and we will have to adjust to how we operate to fall in line with the new service.
“We are seeking an opportunity for training with the new aircraft because they need to know our area and we need to know about working practically with the new aircraft, because they are very different to the Sea Kings.
“I can see an increased demand on RNLI services as a stopgap; for people who are taken ill on the Farne Islands or Holy Island, when the tide’s in and the causeway’s closed, the helicopter’s always been the best option, but it might be that sending a lifeboat is a stopgap until the helicopter arrives.
“It’s all unknown at this stage, like with anything new.
“The new aircraft are state-of-the-art while the Sea Kings are very, very old, which is important for people to recognise.
“The Government’s response was based on whether Search and Rescue should really be a military service so now it will be a civilian one run by Bristow on behalf of HM Coastguard.”
‘Pleasure to work with RAF’
Ryan Douglas, station officer for Holy Island Coastguard, said: “We would like to take this opportunity to thank the RAF for all its Search and Rescue work over the last 30-plus years.
“The RAF and Coastguard Rescue Team on Holy Island have carried out many rescues together, from delivering a new-born baby to rescuing a horse from mud and the incoming tide, with the most common rescues being the transportation of injured and critically-ill persons from Holy Island to hospital.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with the RAF and we are proud to have served alongside the Sea King helicopter and her crew.
“The new service will continue that same proud tradition of search and rescue through Sikorsky S92 and Agusta Westland helicopters operated by HM Coastguard.”
‘We owe them a great debt’
The Duke of Northumberland said: “Ever since I was a child, the regular presence of the yellow helicopter, patrolling our shores and hills, has been an exciting and comforting sight and sound.
“202 Squadron has provided a vital service for 40 years, saving lives, often in abominable conditions and the men who served in the squadron deserve the fullest praise for their bravery, sense of duty and professionalism.
“We owe them a great debt and look forward to a new era of Search and Rescue that will hopefully serve us just as well.”
‘Unique challenge needs unique solution’
Current Berwick MP, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said: “While I hope that the new civilian provision taking over from 202 Squadron as of October will be excellent and effective. I remain concerned about the difficult terrain locations where emergencies have historically been well served by the RAF Boulmer team.
“I am particularly working with a variety of emergency service groups to find adequate solutions for emergency provision for Holy Islanders and tourist visitors.
“We have here a unique challenge with the causeway at high tide, which needs a unique solution now that the Sea King is no longer available.”