The Helo Now Standing…

…on Platform 6 3/4 is the 20:15 gravy train for Bristow. Not content with ‘outsourcing’ the UK’s impeccable air/sea rescue services to the private sector, the Condem government, with almost endearingly flatfoot timing, chooses to do so on the 50th anniversary of Baron Beeching wielding his socially callous report: The Reshaping of British Railways. on behalf of Ernest Marples, perhaps the most biased and self-serving minister even the Tories have ever come up with.

Given that most successful and popular train company in the present rail set-up is East Coast and that’s the ONLY part of the whole network NOT being run by the private sector, this should give even Lord Snooty’s chums pause about bunging anything else to their buddies in the City for them to loot and pillage three ways from Sunday. But no. The chance of another slice of key public interest being exposed to the market was another dogma to be run over at speed by their karma.

Granted, our SAR services needed a boost. Their veteran Sea King workhorses have been on station since the 1970s and there is a nominally confusing overlapping among RAF, Royal Navy and HM Coastguard stations and units tasked with operating them in this role, But the bottom line is that their operations have been the stuff of legends—repeated tales of skilled bravery in plucking lives out of hair-raising predicaments. If things ain’t broke, why fix ’em?

What is especially perverse is that the SAR services invariably operate in a seamless unit under co-ordination by HM Coastguard and its mostly part-time teams with the entirely voluntary and self-funding RNLI and the (mostly Scottish) Mountain Rescue teams, all of which are also entirely voluntary and self-funding. No other country relies on its citizens for most of their rescue services. No other country can boast such a dedicated and effective force for good. Imagine if most of our frontline police or NHS were enthusiastic and dedicated (albeit fully and professionally trained) amateurs.

Yet, not content with having scrambled the main Coastguard stations last year in a ‘rationalisation’ that now has Stornoway handling recent wintry emergencies in Kintyre and on Arran, a £1.6bn contract has now been signed with the Aberdeen-based subsidiary of the Texan Bristow Helicopters. No quibbles with this choice of contractor—they’ve been handling helicopters out to the North Sea rigs for forty years, among them the same Sikorsky S92s that HM Coastguard already operates out of Stornoway and Lerwick. And this is not about nostalgia for the Sea King. Splendid and noble though that old warhorse’s service record has been, it’s well past any sell-by date.

In 2006, the Blair government announced controversial plans to effectively privatise provision of search and rescue helicopters, though the intention was that crews might transfer to the new service. In February 2010, Soteria became the programme’s preferred bidder but a year later, the UK Government froze their bid process when Soteria admitted to unauthorised access to commercially sensitive information regarding the programme. While this contract is being renegotiated, a gap contract was tendered for the existing MCA bases and in February 2012 it was announced that Bristow Helicopters would take over the running of Stornoway and Sumburgh using Sikorsky S-92s.

Future SAR Bases (blue = 2 x AW189; red = 2 x S92)

The Eight SAR Bases of the Future (blue = 2 x AW189; red = 2 x S92; ‘Maston’ s/b ‘Manston’)

The proposed coverage shown on the map above has a couple of striking features. One is the lack of cover for the Northumbrian coast, due to a demise of RAF Boulmer and the other is that, like the earlier Coastguard cuts, Scotland’s three to England’s four and Wales two may be in rough proportion to the land mass but not to length of coastline or of sea area to cover, especially considering the UK scrapped its long-range maritime patrol ability in an earlier ‘rationalisation’.

Certainly, a heavier grouping near the Channel is justified by its huge sea traffic. But the worst maritime disasters from Torrey Canyon to Braer have taken place at the periphery. Also, although much revered for their sterling service, no-one would quibble that the Sea Kings needed to be replaced by faster, more modern helos and the AW189 and S92 are capable aircraft. But some penny-pinching advantage has been taken of their greater speed to give them greater radius of coverage and close bases like Boulmer.

A Sea King’s 3,200 hp engines can shift its 10 tonnes at up to 120 mph, which means if you allow a 5-minute scramble time it can be overhead 30 miles away within 15 minutes of the shout coming in. The smaller AW189’s 4,000 hp can cruise its 8 tonnes at 170 mph, which gets it out to almost 45 miles away in the same time whereas the larger S92 uses 5,000 hp to shift its 12 tonnes at a slightly higher cruising speed. Both can take up to 18 passengers—quite a few more than the Sea King but that will come down once all needed equipment is installed. It means that a disaster off the Farnes will take an hour to reach.

But the issue is not really about equipment or even rebasing; that’s been a given for well over a decade. It’s about the crews who will fly them. There are many skilled helo pilots who have honed their skills ferrying men to and from the rigs in tricky conditions. But the men (there are no women) who fly the SAR helos are magnificent, a breed apart. Watch any episode of Highland Rescue on the higher-numbered channels to see there magicians ease their rescuing winchman into impossible corners under impossible conditions.

Taking nothing away from the professionalism of ‘regular’ helo pilots, the breed of men who fly SAR missions for a living—and their crew whose necks depend on their skill and judgement—live on the edge for the sake of others in a way few can imagine. These are not standard day jobs; they are not even standard military jobs because seldom does anyone get put in harm’s way and in the teeth of all that the elements and landscape can throw against you on a daily basis. Handling fickle North Sea visibility is one thing; holding the helo rotors within inches of cliffs in blustery downdrafts while an injured kayaker is winched away from the incoming tide on the rocks below is entirely another.

There is talk of the RAF & RN crews transferring over to the new service and some hope that their pay might become more commensurate with their achievements. But, just as tinkering with HM Coastguard verged on folly when years of experience was ‘rationalised’ out of existence, so any losses among SAR crew will be a huge gap, not just in capability, but in the smooth working with RNLI and Mountain Rescue so that both the seas around us and the hills above will become more dangerous places and all the more deadly.

It is apparent that the UK government is pretty ignorant of conditions as they pertain in Scotland and the fundamental impact such relatively trivial ‘savings’ have on the superb rescue services that have over decades snatched thousands from the jaws of death. They are also pretty ungrateful for the first-class services of the RNLI/Mountain Rescue volunteers that would otherwise cost them a huge amount (RNLI alone: £147m each year).

No doubt whoever crews the new SAR fleet will be professional and do their best. But at £1.6bn, somebody has feathered another nice privatisiation billet for their friends that is comparable to the ludicrously expensive railway privatisation and PFI wheezes of yore. At that rate, 20 new helos pay for themselves inside three months. When it’s good times, the government is well advised not to screw the public—especially over well loved services, but in bad times like these, it is bad politics, as well as bad policy.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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