Air search teams receive new hope

SCORES of RAF personnel operating Sea King search and rescue operations from a Suffolk military base have learnt their future may be less precarious than feared.

SCORES of RAF personnel operating Sea King search and rescue operations from a Suffolk military base have learnt their future may be less precarious than feared.

The Government yesterday made its announcement about the future of search and rescue (SAR) helicopter services - including those in Suffolk - amid concerns that a privatisation could lead to job cuts and RAF base closures.

Private companies are to be invited to compete to operate SAR helicopter services. The deal, under the Government's Private Finance Initiative, could see civilian aircrew operating alongside military ones at SAR bases.

But there are currently no plans to close any of the 12 existing SAR bases, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said.

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And Colonel John Brittain, deputy director of the equipment capability area at the MoD, stressed that it would be necessary to retain a core military capability at bases.

The RAF SAR centres are at Wattisham near Needham Market, Leconfield in Yorkshire, Boulmer in Northumberland, Lossiemouth in Morayshire, Chivenor in Devon and Valley in Anglesey. The Royal Navy has SAR bases at Prestwick in Scotland and Culdrose in Cornwall.

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The RAF's B Flight 22 Squadron, which employs about 60 staff, has been based at Wattisham for about 12 years and has flown hundreds of rescue missions. It consists of about 20-air crew, 40 engineers, and two Sea King helicopters.

Before yesterday's announcement some MPs had expressed worries that some bases might shut and that some SAR crews could be replaced.

The contract will run from 2012, and could last for 25 to 30 years and be worth as much as £1 billion. SAR services will continue to be managed jointly by the MoD and the MCA.

The part-privatisation was announced yesterday by Minister for Defence Procurement Lord Drayson and Shipping Minister Stephen Ladyman.

But flight commander Neil Robertson, who is in charge of the Wattisham SAR operation, said the announcement is only one stage in determining the future of frontline search and rescue operations.

He said: “I am not making an official comment, but they have not taken decisions yet on the format for search and rescue's future. We will have to wait and see.”

Part of the reason for the part-privatisation is the need to replace the Sea King helicopters at the military SAR bases during the next decade. Lord Drayson said that the current SAR helicopters delivered a first-class service, but did need replacing.

He said: “This project provides the opportunity to bring together three strands of the current SAR providers into one harmonised service. This high quality service will be as effective as the present one, while delivering better value for money for the taxpayer.”

And MCA chief executive John Astbury said that the MCA's own new 2007-2012 contract would provide helicopters that were 50% faster and that new helicopters for the entire operation would help save more lives.

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