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U.K. to replace its aging Sea Kings

Jan. 21, 2015, London, U.K. - For decades they’ve been the sight that has brought hope to those in desperate situations – its crews performing some unbelievable feats to help save countless lives.


January 21, 2015
By News and Star

Topics

But soon, the Royal Air Force’s legendary Sea King rescue helicopters
will be no more. New search aircraft will be called upon in the most
critical of situations, where immense skill and time are of the essence.

It’s a change which is being watched closely from many quarters and one for which preparations are well underway.

The Sea King is being replaced by the Sikorsky S92 search and rescue helicopter, being operated on behalf of HM Coastguard.

On Saturday 60 mountain rescuers from 10 of the 12 teams in Cumbria
took part in their first training with the Sikorsky at the end of
Thirlmere. They familiarised themselves with the helicopter, its
capabilities and limitations and had a detailed safety briefing.

After this, wearing goggles to protect their eyes from the freezing
air blasted down from the helicopter’s massive rotor blades, the teams
practised the high-line – where two team members feed a rope to a
‘winchman’ as he is winched up with the stretcher. The ‘winchman’ has to
hold the rope tightly to ensure that the stretcher does not start
spinning.

Mike Park, the team leader of the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team
who took part in the training, says being underneath the new rescue
helicopter felt like being hit by a 50mph wind.

“You’ve got to be careful how you’re standing because it will blow
you off your feet and it will certainly whip anything loose out of your
hands, so you’re going to lose your hat and your gloves if you haven’t
got them tied on. It certainly makes you stagger around,” he adds.

The teams were training underneath the Sikorsky S92 because it is a
much more powerful helicopter than the Sea King. It’s important that the
teams know what it feels like to be under the helicopter’s down-draught
and know the helicopter itself so they’re prepared when they’re called
to a rescue. All 450 mountain rescue team members in Cumbria will be
undergoing training in the next few months.

In just over two months, on April 1, two Sikorsky S92 helicopters
will go live at Humberside, one of the bases that will cover Cumbria,
and the phasing out of the Sea Kings will begin.

In 1978 the Westland Sea King HAR3 entered RAF service, followed by
the 3A – the type flown by Prince William in operations in Cumbria – in
1996.

Both aircraft have been used in the RAF’s Search and Rescue role and
have played an instrumental part in saving lives. They are often called
out to assist the mountain rescue teams with serious incidents where it
is vital that the patient is taken to hospital as quickly as possible. A
journey to the nearest trauma unit could take the mountain rescue teams
five or six hours but would take the Sea King a matter of minutes. Such
a time difference could save a life.

As well as rescuing people from the fells, the Sea Kings airlifted
people to safety during the floods of 2005 in Carlisle and again in 2009
in Cockermouth.

Often the aircraft have to fly in very difficult conditions. Coniston
Mountain Rescue deputy team leader Jeff Carroll says one incident in
particular stuck out in his memory.

“The flying on March 2013 when we had three hypothermic women on
Levers Hawse, that was stunning flying. Reversing up basically what was a
corner above Levers Water in the teeth of a gale. I don’t know if you
remember the snow of that March but it was really serious conditions and
the flying was stunning, absolutely stunning,” he says.

The crews who will be flying the new Sikorsky S92 helicopters are
predominantly former military pilots, so mountain rescuers are not
afraid of losing any piloting skills. Instead of flying for the RAF,
these pilots work for Bristow Helicopter Ltd, the company that won the
£1.6bn UK SAR Helicopter contract in March 2013.

They will run the service for 13 years on behalf of the Maritime
Coastguard Agency and are providing 22 new state-of-the-art helicopters
which will operate from 10 bases in the UK.

Currently Cumbria is served by the RAF bases in Boulmer in the north
east, Leconfield near Hull, Valley in Anglesey and HMS Gannet at
Prestwick Airport. From April two Sikorsky S92 will operate from
Humberside, followed by two more at Caernarfon in July and by the end of
the year two of Bristow’s other helicopters, the AgustaWestland AW189,
will be operating out of Prestwick.

Mr Park is happy with the locations of the new bases and does not think there is any need for a base in Cumbria itself.

He says: “By being closer to Cumbria it doesn’t necessarily improve
the outcome for the casualty because at the end of the day it is just an
aircraft and it has limitations.

“Mountain rescue teams still need to get up onto the hill and yes,
sometimes, it would be nice to be flown up there but it still doesn’t
change the fact that we still need to have the ability to walk, climb
and run to these places to deal with the casualties. Being where they
are actually gives us some important time to not be rushing and
panicking into where we need to go.”

Mr Park adds that the Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS),
whose Pride of Cumbria helicopter is based at Langwathby, also play a
huge role in mountain rescues.

He says: “The GNAAS are closer as they are based in Cumbria and they have a different capability and are equally as good a use.

“The difference between an air ambulance and this aircraft is the air
ambulance is carrying a doctor the majority of the time, and they’re
based in Cumbria so they can be faster.

“However, they’re limited in working in a mountain environment, they
haven’t got a winch, they can’t carry great piles of mountain rescuers
up the hill, they can only fly in daylight hours – and the weather is a
significant factor for them. But they still do a really, really, really
fantastic job and they do save lives and obviously we work with them as
well. It’s tools in the toolbox, it’s nice to have them all.”

The new Sikorsky S92 helicopters can carry 11 passengers and two
stretchers. Their technology is more advanced than that of the Sea Kings
and includes icing protection systems, a medical suite, the latest
mission management systems like high definition infra red, automated
search and target acquisition, radar and GPS.

Mr Park says: “It will improve what we do. They can fly a little bit
faster so they will arrive with us a little bit faster. Because it’s
brand new it will be a lot more reliable so when we ask for a
helicopter, there’s a lot more chance of it arriving and not having
mechanical problems. Not that there’s been too much of an issue with
regards to the Sea King.

“I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that we haven’t
been getting as good a service as we could have from the Royal Navy and
RAF. The strapline from Bristow and the Coastguard is it will be as good
a service as we get now if not better.”

He added: “On the whole, sentimentally it’s been really nice working
with the RAF and the Royal Navy and we will continue to work with them
for the next couple of years. They are not just disappearing, they are
phasing out slowly.

“It’s change but that’s life and I’m really looking forward to
working with the Coast Guard and Bristow and certainly from my
experience today, this was the first time when we’ve actually physically
seen it can happen.

“We’re looking forward to working with them in the future.”


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