The Royal Air Force (RAF) ceased Search and Rescue (SAR) operations with its well known yellow Sea King helicopters this weekend, ending an impressive 74 years of continuous life-saving operations by RAF crews. The last operational mission was flown on 4 October by a crew at Chivenor airfield, transporting a 38 year old male to hospital. Shortly afterwards, the RAF crew and helicoopter were relieved of their duty. Bristow Helicopters has taken over the SAR responsibility.
Official statistic show that since 1983 and using mainly Sea King choppers, RAF crews of six SAR-units throughout the UK completed 34,025 callouts and rescued 26,853 persons in distress. Each unit maintained a 15-minutes readiness state during daylight hours and a 45-minutes readiness state during night time.
The Bristow Group in 2013 won a 10-year and 1.6 billion GBP contract to provide SAR coverage, starting this year. It will no longer be Yellow Sea Kings, but red and white Sikorsky S-92s and AgustaWestlands 189s saving lives in the UK.
They are called ‘Tweety’, and they were called upon for search and rescue missions for over twenty years. But starting January, it is mission accomplished for the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s (RNLAF) three Agusta-Bell AB412 helicopters at Leeuwarden airbase. Their yellow appearance was a familiar and assuring sight to many. A civil contractor takes over the search and rescue task and the three Tweeties are sold to Peru.
In total, Air Force search and rescue helicopters have been operating from Leeuwarden for 55 years, rescueing downed fighter pilots from the cold North Sea, transporting patients from the Dutch barrier islands to hospitals on the main land.
A total of 5,355 emergency or life saving flights were performed by 303 Squadron, the unit that operated the Tweeties every day and every night of every week, month and year. The Tweeties flew about 200 mission yearly. Every now and then, even a sick seal found in the Wadden Sea was picked up for treatment in an animal shelter.
The yellow Agusta-Bell AB412s entered service with the RNLAF in 1994, its predecessor being the Aérospatiale Alouette III. But according to the Dutch Ministry of Defense, search and rescue is no longer a key operation for the RNLAF. Starting January, Air Force AS532 Cougar helicopters will temporarily fly SAR duties from Leeuwarden. A civil party is expected to take over the operations entirely by mid-2015. “A pity”, says an Air Force AB412 pilot, “it was always a great and rewarding job.”
Currently a KLM Boeing 777 pilot, Willem Boiten flew both the Alouette III and the Tweety. Transition from a ‘normal’ helicopter pilot to a SAR pilot required a lot of hovering and hoist practicing.
“Hovering is always difficult when everything around you is moving, which is the case at sea. My final exam included hovering over a buoy. After I succeeded, my colleagues gave me a water proof marker and hoisted me down to the buoy ‘to write my name on it’ – or so they said. You can guess what happened next: they dragged me along the water, for all passengers on a passing ferry to see. The beer I had afterwards still tasted salty, and my colleagues dared asking whether I still had the marker!”
Early in their career, the AB412s and their crew earned recognition for their vigilance during floods that threatened the southern part of the Netherlands in February 1995. Boiten: “We just flew around as troubleshooters, looking to help out anywhere”
Over the last few years, a lot has changed in the Dutch SAR capacity. Dutch Navy Lynx helos operated alongside the Tweeties for many years, but the Lynx was retired and replaced by NHIndustries NH90 Nato Frigate Helicopters (NFH). The new Navy helos were expected to be fully operational from Naval Airfield De Kooy in 2015, but things may have changed since this year’s break in NH90 deliveries over dozens of technical issues .
As AIRheads↑Fly we are graced by the often many excellent press images put at our disposal. Publishing them is an almost automatic process, meaning we seldom get to talk with the men and women who have been right there, carrying whatever camera they have into the heart of the action. But for our brief focus on a Canadian rescue exercise that has changed.
Albert Law is a lifestyle & documentary photographer, an art director and a designer. More often than not the Vancouver, British Colombia native finds himself in the middle of the action, which can be anything from a surfboard manufacturing shop, to gorgeous artists “caught” in nature to a tough Quick Reaction Force hoovering into an area of operations.
Embedded with the Royal Canadian Air Force on a search and rescue exercise, Law made a series of pictures for the RCAF that included the one featuring our AIRheads↑Fly article From Canada: Men on a wire. AIRheads’ editor Marcel Burger popped a few questions to Albert Law.
AHF: How do you manage to stay focused when you’re right in the middle of everything, with choppers taking off and troops running around? Albert Law: “It can be challenging sometimes in these types on environments because my priority is to not interfere with what’s going on. So I’m constantly looking over my shoulder and scanning the space around me to make sure I don’t get in the way. A lot of times I find myself shooting using the LCD screen on the back of the camera instead of focussing through the eye piece – to avoid tunnel vision.”
AHF: Have aircraft and helicopters a special place in your heart when it comes to your photography? Albert Law: “They are just a part of what I do as a documentary photographer. I had a large interest in aircraft when I was younger. I built a lot of toy model airplanes, but I never got around to getting my pilot’s licence or learning to fly. I definitely like flying and appreciate every opportunity I get, so in that sense I’m very lucky that my job pays me to do this.”
AHF: Does aviation photography give you extra difficulties, compared to the other work you do? Albert Law: “When it comes to aviation photography the challenge is mainly working in small or confined spaces, which doesn’t leave much room to move or use lenses that aren’t wide angle.”
AHF: You’ve done many assignments, which one sticks more to the mind? Albert Law: “One of the the more interesting experiences has been just that story with the Canadian search and rescue unit. I spent two days with the team doing a lot of different things, including being lowered by cable to the ground while the helicopter was hovering 60ft above the ground.”
AHF: What can we expect from you next? Albert Law: “My next photography projects are mainly a continuation of what I’ve been doing the past few months. I will be doing more photo assignments with the military, and on the personal side of things for myself I will be doing photo stories on people I find interesting. They are usually other artists, craftsmen and musicians.”
Frankly meant just to share a fun picture of an essential service of the Royal Canadian Air Force, we at AIRheads↑Fly would like to bring your attention the recent joint military/civilian rescue exercise (SAREX) in Abbotsford, British Columbia, held from 25 to 28 February 2014.
As Rear-Admiral William Truelove, Victoria Search and Rescue Region commander and the commander of Joint Task Force Pacific, puts it strikingly: “Collective search and rescue efforts between the Canadian Armed Forces, other government departments and volunteer organizations help promote education and training, which is fundamental to saving lives.” Amen to that!
The 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron from 19 Wing Comox provided CH-149 Cormorant helicopters and CC-115 Buffalo aircraft, serviced and flown by more than 70 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). They were joined by 35 members of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) in Abbotsford, that provided aircraft and assistance – including in the role of spotter onboard a searching aircraft. Aircrews practiced homing in on emergency locator beacons, parachuting to crash scenes and evacuating patients from remote areas. The team practiced their collective ability to respond to a plane crash.
Hope and Chilliwack areas of the Lower Mainland were used to conduct the exercise. The SAR assets were guided by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre for the Victoria Search and Rescue Region (SRR). This SRR includes a astonishing 920,000 square kilometres (571,783 sqm) of mainly mountainous terrain in British Columbia and the Yukon, extending approximately 600 nautical miles offshore into the Pacific Ocean.
JRCC Victoria is one of three JRCCs in Canada operated by the Canadian Armed Forces in conjunction with the Canadian Coast Guard. The others are in Trenton (Ontario) and Halifax (Nova Scotia). Theyr are manned 24/7 by Canadian Forces and Canadian Coast Guard personnel.
UPDATE 19 DECEMBER 2013: Norway has ORDERED the Agusta Westland AW101 as its new search-and-rescue helicopter, after preselecting the type on 11 November. The aircraft will replace almost ancient Sea Kings.
“I am very pleased that we are now coming forward in the acquisition process for the new search and rescue helicopters”, the Minister of Justice and Public Security Anders Anundsen states in a press release on 10 November 2013.
The Ministry of Justice and Public Security, who selects the rescue helicopter that is operated by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, has thanked the other three bidders – Eurocopter, NHI and Sikorsky – for their efforts. The aim is that the contract following final negotiations will be concluded by the end of the year. The contract includes 16 new SAR helicopters with an option for further 6, and ensures that the Sea King will be phased out across the country by the end of 2020.
Introduction of the new SAR helicopters will start in 2017. Norway is not the first country using the AW101 as a rescue chopper. The yellow painted aircraft are a common sight in Canadian skies and over North American waters where they are named CH-149 Cormorant.