With the looming privatization of the UK Search and Rescue cover and its new Royal recruit, the RAF SAR has recently been a topic on the tip of many tongues. 2011 marks Seventy Years of RAF Search and Rescue, Michael Buckle reports from 202 Sqn ‘D flight’ on the important job that SAR crews carry out daily and their mighty Sea King helicopter.
RAF Lossiemouth and its D Flight are located on the north-east coast of Scotland and are one of the three locations which 202 Sqn operate their Sea King HAR3 helicopter. Each of the locations are equipped with at least two of the Westland constructed helicopters, allowing a readiness state of 15 minutes between the hours of 08:00 and 22:00 and a 45 minute readiness state during the remaining hours.
The squadron as we know it was re-formed in September 1964 and received the Sea King in 1978, currently the head quarters for the squadron are located at RAF Valley in Wales, where both air crew training and administration is carried out. Its three remote flights are A, D and E flights operating from RAF Boulmer, RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Leconfield respectively.
Amongst the current hot topics with UK SAR, it’s very easy to forget about the brave men and women who regularly risk their lives, flying in unfavorable conditions in an increasingly aging aircraft to recover downed airmen and distressed civilians. To date in 2011 of the 173 rescue operations which D flight have been scrambled for, only two of those were to assist the recovery of military aircrew which have ejected from an aircraft, all of the remaining 171 have been to aid the search/retrieval of civilians in their hour of need.
With a large variety of possible situations that the crews could be attending, vigorous daily training is carried out with two sorties a day being flown practicing various search and rescue scenarios.
When the training starts to pay off and a live operation is called upon, the Aeronautical Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (ARCC) based at RAF Kinloss co-ordinate all UK SAR aircraft missions. The joint military and civilian teams operate a Rescue Co-ordination System (RCS), which contains the tasking and status of both land and air based rescue assets to allow them to quickly compute the most effective rescue force.
Once the ARCC team has decided to task D Flight with the rescue, the operations room at D Flight receives a basic tasking order and the crew alarm is raised. The relevant calculations of quickest route and the required amount of fuel are calculated and the scramble begins, the crew quickly suits up and race to the ‘cab’ ready to depart.
Once airborne, the crew can use a variety of communications equipment to co-ordinate their rescue with both the ARCC and other airborne/land assets.
The Sea King is of course equipped with the expected HF radio that allows long distance transmissions beyond line of sight, however besides HF the crews have the capability of transmitting with UHF, VHF and FM radios when distance allows. Most recently in 2010 the TETRA Airwave system has been added to the communications suite via a portable radio, the inclusion of TETRA allows all rescue assets to communicate via the securely encrypted transmission system, which is also currently in use by the UK Police Force and other emergency services.
As well as communications equipment, the Sea King hosts a range of sensors including search radar and most recently in 2004 the Multi-Sensor System (MSS). The multi-million pound upgrade was manufactured by the UK based FLIR Systems Ltd and utilizes a gyro-stabilized turret which contains both infrared and low-light cameras to assist day and night searches.
Using a dual screen station in the rear section of the helicopter, the radar operator controls the high-tech systems, both of which have been proven to dramatically decrease the time taken to complete the rescue in situations where the exact position of the person is unknown.
As well as sophisticated searching equipment, the crews are equipped with Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) for both en-route navigation and searching. Once established on scene, unless the location requires otherwise the pilots will place themselves in a 50ft hover over the target ready to deploy the winch man. The aircraft is fitted with an Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS), although not as advanced as the HAR 3A’s system, it does allow altitude hold whilst in a hover.
While the hover is being safely established the radar operator switches roles to become the winch operator. At this point clear and precise communication between the rear and front of the ‘cab’ become critical, with the winch operator giving both bearings and height adjustments to get in prime position before releasing his winch-man.
When the situation demands, it is possible for the winch operator to take control of the aircrafts position using the Auxiliary Hover & Trim joystick, allowing him to make minor pitch adjustments to get in position, the winch man can then be slowly lowered into position and the rescue can be completed. Each of 202 Squadrons winch men are trained to a paramedic standard allowing them to perform expert, paramedic-level treatment to any injured parties at the scene or during transit to hospital.
Generally the Sea King can be considered an all weather aircraft, and speaking to the crews with the exception of sticky rain, a rescue is always considered possible, and attempted, regardless of the forecasted weather in the area. It is then the captain’s discretion whether to continue en-route.
Rescue types are described to be very seasonal, with the summer months predominantly being filled with ill-prepared holidaymakers and winter months the more hardcore climbers caught out in unexpected bad weather or sustaining injuries.
Despite being in service for over 30 years, with it’s 21st Century upgrades, highly trained and courageous crew, even today the Sea King is proving to be a reliable and capable helicopter in the right hands. Regardless of the SAR’s future, it’s good to know there’s help not too far away.