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Helicopter Search & Rescue

RAF Search & Rescue
RAF Search & Rescue

The utility of the helicopter have made it a clear choice as a search and rescue (SAR) asset. The ability to fly long distances and remain on scene to conduct precision winching and rescue are core elements of successful SAR. The SeaKing aircraft used by the Royal Navy, RAF, and the "stretched" Sikorsky operated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) are capable of operating out to 200 miles, remaining on scene for approximately 40 minutes. These ranges have often been increased by novel refuelling methods, landing on offshore oil platforms and even the use of warships for a mid-flight refuel.

In the UK SAR coverage is provided by the MOD (Royal Navy and RAF) and the MCA, although this is all set to change. The Department for Transport is tendering a contract for the provision of all UK SAR services by a single contractor, timed to coincide with the withdrawal of the SeaKing helicopter in 2016. A single provider will be responsible for the selection of aircraft, bases and the availability of SAR helicopters.

SAR helicopter activities are co-ordinated by the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC) at RAF Kinloss in Scotland. All requests for helicopter SAR assistance from the Police, Coastguard or other authorities are handled by the ARCC. SAR aircraft are in constant contact with the ARCC whilst airborne for co-ordination and tasking.

RAF Search & Rescue
RAF Search & Rescue

Logically there are two phases of any SAR operation: search, and rescue. The search phase varies in complexity from a simple case of a fallen hill walker who uses his mobile phone to call giving his exact position, to a yacht in difficulty whose last known position was 6 hours ago. In the latter case SAR assets employ a variety of search methods depending upon the accuracy and timing of the vessel or individuals last known position, common searches are:

  • Expanding square search: the aircraft will fly to the last known position of the incident (known as the search datum) and commence a right or left handed expanding square search. This search is used when the search datum is accurate and the timing of the datum (known as "time late") is recent.
  • Track crawl: the aircraft will follow the known route of a vessel or walker, flying perpendicularly to the left and right of the reported track in order to establish the position of the intended rescue.
  • Contour search: most commonly used in mountainous areas and in poor weather, an aircraft will start at the base of a mountain and fly a constant right hand climbing turn around the mountain until the summit is reached.

Once the survivor is located the rescue phase can begin. Over land this may be as simple as landing the aircraft in an open area and bringing the survivor on board, or may involve the use of a rescue hoist and winchman if the survivor is precariously placed; often the case in mountain rescues. Over the water the rescue will almost always involve a rescue winchman being lowered either onto a vessel or into the water to positively recover a survivor.

SAR is one of the most difficult helicopter activities requiring excellent handling skills from the pilot, effective crew co-operation and communication and positive and effective action from the rescue winchman. Those involved in SAR operations will testify that whilst it is a constant test of their skills, it is one of the most rewarding jobs in aviation.