The world of UK Helicopter Search and Rescue (SAR) has gone through a historic transition over the past 12 months culminating today, January 1st 2016 at 0900.
Both the distinctive yellow Royal Air Force and red and grey Royal Navy Sea King aircraft have bowed out and been replaced by the new red, white and blue colour scheme of the UK Search and Rescue Helicopter service.
Operating the new state-of-the-art Sikorsky S-92 and AgustaWestland AW189 helicopters, the UK Search and Rescue Helicopter Service is a joint consortium between Bristow Helicopters, the Department for Transport and Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Operating under Her Majesty’s (HM) Coastguard banner, the aircraft and crews officially took over responsibility for providing all helicopter search and rescue around the United Kingdom. The gradual transition has been ongoing with the final two military service providers, HMS Gannet in Prestwick and RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall handing over the mantle at 0900 this morning.
The final drawdown of the Royal Navy comes following the official opening ceremonies of the new SAR bases at Newquay in Cornwall and Prestwick Airport in Scotland, both of which took place on 15th and 17th December respectively.
Bristow’s aircraft and crews have been at the Prestwick base throughout the autumn making preparations for the service becoming operational as well as conducting a raft of training exercises with local search and rescue partners.
The base is led by Chief Pilot Captain Craig Sweeney who is a former Royal Navy Sea King Pilot with HMS Gannet’s Search and Rescue Flight. After more than a decade of service with the Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force, Capt Sweeney moved to Ayrshire to take up his posting in HMS Gannet in 2009 where he served until joining Bristow in April 2013. During his military service, Prince Charles presented him with the Air Force Cross in recognition of his “exceptional levels of leadership, grit and composure” during the rescue of a climber on Beinn Sgulaird, Argyll, in December 2011.
Captain Sweeney said, “The whole team here at Prestwick feels very privileged to be involved in delivering this vital public service. It is a particular honour for me personally to provide this service to my local community – Prestwick is very much home for me and my family. We are very fortunate to have the S-92 which is an excellent aircraft with a strong track record of successful SAR operations across the UK”
Maritime and Coastguard Agency Chief Executive 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 the launch of the Prestwick helicopter base is an extension of the high-quality service that we have been providing in other parts of the UK for the last 30 years”. He also added, “HMS Gannet SAR Flight has set the bar incredibly high, and I would like to thank them for their service and recognise the outstanding work they have done both at sea and inland over many decades. We will take their legacy forward with the utmost pride and care.”
Once all bases are operational, the new Bristow SARH service will operate the Sikorsky S-92 from Stornoway, Sumburgh, Humberside, Caernarfon and Newquay whilst the AgustaWestland AW189 will, in time, operate from Inverness, Prestwick, St Athan, Lee-on-Solent and Lydd.