Pride and sadness as RAF Sea Kings leave Northumberland

Squadron Leader Iain Macfarlane. Picture by John Tuttiett
Squadron Leader Iain Macfarlane. Picture by John Tuttiett

‘It’s been an absolute privilege to be based here’ – that’s the view of the man in charge of ‘A’ Flight 202 Squadron at RAF Boulmer, as the crews hung up their overalls for the final time yesterday.

On the penultimate day (Tuesday) of Search and Rescue (SAR) being provided from RAF Boulmer, after 40 years in total and 37 in the Sea Kings, the Gazette visited the base to look back on four decades of the service.

One of the Sea Kings on the penultimate day at RAF Boulmer. Picture by John Tuttiett

One of the Sea Kings on the penultimate day at RAF Boulmer. Picture by John Tuttiett

The two Sea Kings left for the final time at 9.45am and 11am yesterday as SAR switches to a civilian service.

The new service is now being operated by Bristow Helicopters Ltd on behalf of HM Coastguard, after being awarded the 10-year UK contract by the Department for Transport in March 2013.

The new bases – there will be 10 ‘strategically located close to areas of high SAR incident rates’ – are going live in a phased approach that started on April 1. The first bases to open were at Humberside – the nearest to north Northumberland along with Glasgow (Prestwick) – and Inverness. The Prestwick base is due to become operational on January 1, 2016.

Officer Commanding ‘A’ Flight 202 Squadron, Squadron Leader Iain Macfarlane, said the day was ‘a mixed bag of emotions; quite a lot of sadness and reflection going on, but also a lot of pride’.

The crew prepare the Sea King. Picture by John Tuttiett

The crew prepare the Sea King. Picture by John Tuttiett

“Pride that we have managed to achieve our very high standards right to the end. We are not stumbling over the line, we are marching proudly.”

He continued: “It’s been an absolute privilege to be based here in Northumberland for all these years.

“Unlike any other SAR base around the coast, the community here has really taken us to their hearts and we very much appreciate the warmth and support we have had from all of the local community.”

Each Sea King had a crew of four; pilot, co-pilot, winchmman (usually a fully-qualified, NHS-registered paramedic) and a radar operator, who normally doubles as a winch operator.

The Flight at RAF Boulmer has been home to 20 aircrew, made up of five crews working on a rotational basis, as well as four operational assistants, a civilian administration assistant and a team of civilian contracted engineers.

Crews have operated 24-hour shifts, starting at 9.20am, 365 days of the year, at 15 minutes’ readiness to scramble during the day, reduced to 45 minutes at night, although crew and engineers were always on site throughout the 24 hours.

For the past 51 years, ‘A’ Flight 202 Squadron has stood ready for incidents over an area stretching from Fife in the north down to Hartlepool in the south and from the Lake District in the west across to the Norweigian boundary in the North Sea to the east.

Sqn Ldr Macfarlane, who was in his second tour in command of the Flight following three years from 2003 to 2005, said: “It’s a very interesting patch to work in, we have got an enormous area of responsibility.”

And the fact that the crews have met this responsibility with flying colours is testament to the men and women, plus the Sea Kings themselves.

“The Sea King’s been a tremendous helicopter in this role,” said Sqn Ldr Macfarlane. “She’s extremely good at what she was designed for, for search and rescue, she’s just getting a bit long in the tooth.”

Yesterday morning, the pair, numbered 131 and 132, took off from RAF Boulmer for the last time, heading to a storage facility on the south coast.

Bristow crews will deliver the service with Sikorsky S92 and AgustaWestland AW189 helicopters, equipped with the latest technology including night vision, mission management and increased onboard medical capabilities.

At the launch event of the civilian SAR service at Humberside Airport in February this year, Chief Pilot Liz Forsyth, a former SAR Commander at RAF Lossiemouth and Pilot Flight Commander at RAF Valley, told the Gazette the new helicopters were a real step-up.

“It’s just a step forward; it’s faster, it’s more modern technology and safety features 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.”

John Hayes MP, then Minister responsible for the Coastguard, described the new service as ‘world-class’, but 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, chief executive of the Marine and Coastguard Agency, added: “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.”

SAR statistics at RAF Boulmer

Since records began in 1983 up to the end of last year, the crews at RAF Boulmer have been called out 4,856 times (an average of 152 a year or once every 2.4 days) and assisted 3,934 people.

There has been a steady rise in the number of callouts since the 1980s with the highest number (214) coming in 2009. The highest number of people moved in a single year was 191 in 2000.

The crews have assisted in some notable operations over the years, including the Alexander Keilland oil-rig collapse in the North Sea in March 1980, the Lockerbie plane disaster in December that same year, the explosion of the Piper Alpha oil platform in July 1988, rescuing flood victims from Carlisle in January 2005 and the Grayrigg train crash in Cumbria in February 2007.

From 1964 to today – a brief history

In September 1964, No. 228 Squadron, which had formed at Leconfield, in Yorkshire, in 1959 to operate Whirlwind HAR10s in the SAR role, was renumbered No. 202 Squadron.

SAR flights were operated from Clotishall, Acklington and Leuchars, as well as the headquarters at Leconfield.

In 1975, RAF Boulmer weclomed ‘A’ Flight 202 Squadron with their Westland Whirlwind helicopters following the closure of RAF Acklington.

In 1978, the Flight was re-equipped with the now-iconic yellow Sea Kings with their infra-red and digital TV search cameras, starting their 37-year career at the station.

No. 202 Squadron’s headquarters moved to Boulmer on the closure of Finningley in 1996 and then to RAF Valley at the start of 2008.

‘D’ Flight, based at RAF Lossiemouth, in north-east Scotland, and ‘E’ Flight, based at RAF Leconfield ended their operations at the end of March, leaving Boulmer’s ‘A’ Flight as the last man standing.