Privatised air-sea rescue: from duty to day job

Handing over the helicopter rescue service to a US company is a bad idea – just ask Prince William

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:41 ON Fri 29 Mar 2013

BRITAIN'S air-sea search-and-rescue helicopter service, run by the Royal Air Force since it was founded in 1941 to recover ditched military air crews (still its primary purpose), is to be privatised in two years time with the £1.6 billion  contract going to the US company Bristow. 

Prince William, who is a search-and-rescue pilot with the RAF, is said to have been unhappy about the plan for some time.  Downing Street have admitted that he raised the subject with the Prime Minister when they both went to Zurich as part of England's failed World Cup bid in 2010.  Despite an unusual bond between the two men (both are Aston Villa supporters) it seems Prince William's concerns have been disregarded.  

The service provides both air force and navy Sea King helicopters from seventeen coastal stations around the country. RAF Sea Kings, as we know from the numerous photographs of Prince William in his cockpit, are bright yellow.  The Royal Navy use a more subdued grey and red livery

Under the new more-with-less contract, the number of bases will be cut from 17 to ten.  The planned closure of Portland in Dorset on the south-west coast means there will be no helicopters based between Newquay in Cornwall and Lee-on-the-Solent in Hampshire (a distance of 207 miles).  The North Sea coast will be even worse off with no choppers between Humberside and Inverness (309 miles).

The idea is that we can manage with fewer bases thanks to the higher speed of new helicopters that Bristow will supply - 10 Sikorsky S-92s and 10 AgustaWestland AW189s. 

The Sikorsky S-92 has a long maritime history and will certainly be fit for purpose - the Sea King is, after all, a Sikorsky built under licence. But the Agusta Westland 189 is new and unproven in the role.  Although faster than a Sea King it is smaller and lighter.  Frankly, it looks more like the sort of thing Russian oligarchs fly their girlfriends to Ascot in.  It's hard to see how it will be able to hover in, say, a Force 9 gale.

There is another more powerful objection to the privatisation - is it really a good idea that such a service should be civilianised?  Take the story of Sergeant Tony Russell, a Royal Marine who was winchman aboard a Royal Navy Sea King scrambled from Culdrose on the night of 7 July 2011. His aircraft was sent to the assistance of the yacht Andriette, adrift with two Dutch crewmen 90 miles off the Scillies. The boat was  being hammered by 40 foot waves in a Force 9 gale…in pitch darkness.

In a newspaper interview he gave after being awarded a George Medal for his conduct that night, Sergeant Russell said "It was pretty much the worst weather I have ever seen…when we opened the door it was silence because we looked at it and thought, 'what do we do'?"

The official citation recounts what happened next: “Winched down in complete darkness, Sergeant Russell was immediately engulfed in waves and lost communications. With gritty determination, he hauled himself into the life raft and secured the first survivor with a strop. Briefly dragged back under the water, he was winched up to the relative safety of the helicopter.

The life raft capsized due to the heavy swell and pitching seas, with the remaining survivor lost from sight. With little regard for his own safety, Sergeant Russell was winched back down and, despite the waves, was able to swim to the inverted life raft; diving under it and surfacing in an air pocket.

To cut a long, and hair-raising, story short - he was eventually able to grab hold of the second yachtsman and then managed to get both of them onto the helicopter  - by the skin of their teeth.

No one is suggesting that the armed forces have a monopoly on physical courage, but I suspect anyone in peril on the sea would rather be rescued by Sergeant Russell  - winching down from a helicopter crewed by naval or RAF pilots - than a civilian contractor.  When the chips are down the difference between doing a job and doing your duty is crucial. 

It is an exasperating paradox that while the modern British state seems ever ready to poke its nose into matters which are none of its business, and to pay for many things that are not its responsibility – it seems willing to abandon to an American contractor one of its basic duties – the provision of air-sea rescue in home waters.

Aston Villa are at home on Easter Sunday against Liverpool. A bumper crowd of 41,000 is expected.  "Don’t sell air-sea rescue to the Yanks" isn’t the catchiest of slogans, but it would be nice to hear it chanted from the terraces of Villa Park – just in case the club's second most famous supporter, David Cameron, is listening.   · 

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Mr Black said about the AW189 "It's hard to see how it will be able to hover in, say, a Force 9 gale". Does he have piloting experience on this type to justify his statement ?

And as for "When the chips are down the difference between doing a job and doing your duty is crucial", it's unproven, particularly since some crew members of the civilian SAR will likely be former military SAR personal.

Sounds very specious, Mr Black - have you nothing more worthy to write an opinion on ?