Britain’s voluntary land-based mountain rescue teams are supported by professional helicopter search and rescue operations. David Lintern visits the new Coastguard Search and Rescue base at Prestwick.
Prestwick SAR (search and rescue) became operational in Jan 2016, and in that year it was the busiest base in the UK. It’s one of ten bases across the UK, and the 6th to come online in a phased transfer from the old mix of military and civilian services. Bristow Helicopters Limited now operates the service on behalf of Her Majesty’s Coastguard. Overall, it’s a £1.9 billion operation that rescues or assists about 2,000 people a year across the country. Its role as frontline emergency rescue for hill goers and sailors in distress is what grabs the headlines, but they also perform a vital role supporting the ambulance service in remote highland and island locations.
When Bristow began operations, there was a good deal of public concern that previous military crew experience would be lost, but the duty team during our visit were keen to calmly dispel that myth. Nearly all of Prestwick’s crew came over directly from nearby HMS Gannet, so while there had been new equipment to get used to, the transfer had been very smooth in terms of staffing and procedures. As a symbol of the link between the old and the new, there’s even a tiny Gannet insignia in the reception of the new building. Duty Captain Lloyd told me he used to do troop insertions in Afghanistan… I get the impression his current role feels relatively relaxed compared to that work!
There were lots of probing questions from our group about the move to a fully civilian service – and the team were very open in their responses – but given the nuanced discussion that followed, safety is quite clearly still the number one priority here. “Safety procedures in military aviation have actually come more into line with commercial aviation over the last decade or so – there’s been a convergence”.
Overall, the number of operational callouts has actually increased since the new base has been operational, and the crew were keen to reassure us that “if we’re needed, we go – from our point of view that hasn’t changed one bit”. One effect, they say, has been that the Prestwick crews are called south to the Lake District more often, but this is due to the fact that as there is now a SAR base at Inverness, which is closer to Ben Nevis than Lossiemouth was. This, combined with new aircraft, means response times are improved.
The response times are indeed astonishingly fast: At Prestwick, a daytime launch averages 6 minutes, with an overnight launch being around 15-20 minutes. Once airborne, the crew can be on site on the mountain in the North Lakes in 30 minutes or less – vastly quicker than a ground-based team.
The building is staffed 24 hours a day, and a crew consists of a captain, co-pilot, a winch operator, a winchman/paramedic and two engineers. The crew sleeps on site and is on call, and so generally sleep is broken with a callout on the dedicated ‘batphone’ at some point in their 24-hour shift; “it sounds like a long time at work, but the body adjusts”, they say.
Inside the main hangar, there were two Sikorsky S-92 helicopters; during a shift, one aircraft is used as the duty aircraft and the second is available as back up for occasions when the other is undergoing maintenance. Inside, it’s surprisingly spacious and geared for both ‘wet and dry jobs’. There’s removable crampon matting and lots of fold down seats, a waterproof soft floor for maritime operations, a stretcher and 2 winches, again – the spare present for redundancy. The winchman/paramedic and winch operator (the rear crew) describe how the aircraft is specifically orientated for trauma, because that comprises most of their callouts. It’s spotlessly clean and tidy, and there’s an atmosphere of quiet efficiency, with everything optimised and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
The rear crew expressed fond memories of the Sea King helicopters, but they do so with a wry grin. “They were sorely in need of retirement. We used to say – if it’s leaking oil, at least we know there’s still some left”. They were also fatiguing for the pilots to fly, since they had to be flown low – often in between the hills – as they had no heating or de-icing equipment. As one of the crew remembered, less fondly, “you can’t warm a draught!”
I moved forward to the cockpit, to catch co-pilot Jamie talk enthusiastically about the capabilities of the Sikorsky. The level of control is frankly mind-boggling: Height, velocity, direction, and distance from water or ground can all be computer controlled singly or in multiples, should the need arise. “It is incredible that in bad weather, you can set a hover pattern X metres from the terrain and the machine will hold you in that position – it makes the winchman’s job much safer.” But he says, “There’s always a balance to be struck, between looking at your readouts and what’s happening outside. Aviation has been dealing with the side affects of automation for at least the last 20 years. Material confirmation of everything that’s going on is key, especially since we are nearly always responding to an emergency.”
As you might expect from such a tight knit team, while each member of the crew has a specific area of expertise and a role to play, there’s a good deal of multidisciplinary work to be handled, and everyone is fully conversant with a truly bewildering array of communications equipment. Mobile phone networks, ISAR, PLB, radar, air traffic control and Coastguard comms all need to be understood by everyone on board.
There are new Leonardo AW189 helicopters being brought into service from July this year, and a need to mix up the fleet in case of grounding for mechanical reasons. The Prestwick base will get the AW189 machines, while Stornoway will keep the Sikorsky aircraft. Captain Lloyd explained that they are busy at the moment, as the crews transition from one machine to the next; “Once crewmembers go into the simulator, they aren’t allowed back aboard the S-92’s – there are just too many things that are different”. Having seen how much they have to work with in terms of technology and communications, as well as performing their set role, all in extremis, it’s really no wonder. They have a UK wide ‘transition team’ to help meet rota requirements during the training process.
Lloyd is looking forward to the new aircraft; “like a Lamborghini, apparently!” but the rear crew are still a little concerned about less space in the back. There’s a clear advantage to a smaller footprint, though; they hope to be able to land directly at Glasgow Hospital instead of the airport, and therefore reduce transfer times for those they rescue.
I came away with a renewed respect and deep gratitude for our search and rescue helicopter service, clearly all high performing, sharp minded professionals who genuinely love and believe in their work. There’s also a sense that while the last few years have seen some change, it’s been generally positive in improving safety margins and response times. Thankfully, when it comes to an emergency, we are still in very good hands indeed.