The Fleet Air Arm relinquishes its SAR Helicopter role on the 31st December 2015, when the last Royal Navy Search and Rescue crews stand down at HMS Sea Hawk at RNAS Culdrose and at HMS Gannet at Prestwick in Scotland they will bring to a close Military Search and Rescue Flying in the United Kingdom, as the responsibility will be passed on to Bristow Helicopters who have been awarded the Coast Guard Contract to provide SAR helicopter provision in the United Kingdom through to 2026.
The Royal Navy`s SAR helicopter crews have over the last six decades have received no less than three MBEs, one British Empire Medal, twelve Air Force Crosses, three Air Force Medals, six Queens Gallantry Medals plus two bars and two George Medals.
From the beginning of this year the British Military Sea Kings have gradually been withdrawn from service, with the RAFs last Sea Kings handing over their responsibilities in October, leaving the Royal Navy’s two SAR flights at RNAS Culdrose and RNAS Prestwick.
During the run down of Military SAR operations it was recorded that 95% of call outs involved civilians according to the last published 2014 Military SAR Statistics which have shown that HMS Gannets SAR flight has shared the title of the busiest SAR Flight with the now disbanded C Flight 22 Squadron at RAF Valley over the last five years, in 2014 HMS Gannets SAR flight responded to 299 Callouts with the average length of each flight being 1 hour 53 Minutes and an average range of 58 miles from base and 771 NAS responded 252 times with the average sorties being around 1.28 Hours and 32 miles from Culdrose.
The Fleet Air Arm has had search and rescue helicopters at RNAS Portland, Lee-on-Solent, and Culdrose and from 1971 at RNAS Prestwick operated by five Naval Air Squadrons 771, 772, 781 and 810 and 819 Naval Air Squadrons, the latter two units being front line Anti Submarine Warfare squadrons with embedded SAR capability. As the Fleet Air Arm has contracted so has the number Navy’s SAR flights, finishing up with the two SAR flights one within 771 NAS at RNAS Culdrose and the second at HMS Gannet the Fleet Air Arm enclave at Prestwick airport which was originally part of 819NAS.
Up until 2006 when the Fleet Air Arm lost its fixed wing aircraft the Royal Navy’s SAR helicopters carried a SAR Diver whose primary job was to enter the water from the helicopter and dive down to a sinking aircraft using a Breathing Apparatus (BASAR) and rescue the pilot from a sinking Fleet Air Arm aircraft, a skill set that translated into civilian operations just as effectively.
There is a story on the http://www.Navy-net.co.uk web site which is said to have happened during the Fastnet Race rescues, which sums up the humor of the “dope on the rope” as the SAR Divers where known, The post said is said to have come from one Larry ‘Scouse’ Slaters crew during the Simon Le Bonn and Drum rescue.
“Allegedly, when Larry popped up inside the air pocket he asked which one of them was Simon Le Bon. When he identified himself, Larry said, ‘Right, unless you promise NEVER to make another record, you’re staying here!’
PO(A) Slater was awarded the George Medal for his part in the rescue in which he dived down into the up turned hull and rescuing the crew members who had been trapped in an air pocket in the capsized yacht.
The Royal Navy Sea King HAR Mk 5s are analogue machines in a digital age and they have been maintained at 15 minutes’ readiness during the day and 45 Minutes at night, now for some twenty-seven years. Providing a life line to those in distress, with the crews ready to fly out and snatch another body from Davey Jones Locker or to pluck a sole from a precarious cliff face. Due to their locations the Royal Navy’s Sea Kings have have also respond to more Hospital Transfers from the Highlands and Islands in Scotland and from the Scilly Isles in the South West, with around 20% of the RN SAR helicopters tasking’s being Medevac transfers.
So when the last Navy crews stand down on the 31st December 2015 it will bring to a close 63 years of of Royal Navy Search and Rescue operations along with the end of twenty-seven years of Fleet Air Arm Sea King HAR Mk 5 Search and Rescue Flying. So as a chapter in British Military and Naval Aviation closed it is time to signal “”Bravo Zulu” Royal Navy SAR Helicopters”