End date for Sea King search and rescue helicopters based at Wattisham Airfield announced

A Sea King from Wattisham completes a circuit during an air test.

A Sea King from Wattisham completes a circuit during an air test. - Credit: citizenside.com

Sea King helicopters will stop flying from a Suffolk airfield in the summer as part of major changes to the UK’s search and rescue operation.

On July 1, crews at Wattisham Airfield, near Stowmarket, will finish their final shifts as the service is moved away from the control of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The Department for Transport (DfT) signed a contract worth £1.6billion with the Bristow Group in 2013 – to provide the UK’s search and rescue capability – a move which spells the end of a 21-year relationship between the Sea Kings and Wattisham.

But the future of where search and rescue teams, which cover the south-east, will be based is unclear following the closure of Manston Airport, in Kent, last year.

A spokeswoman for the government said: “No decisions have been taken about the location of the search and rescue helicopter base in the south-east.

“The Maritime and Coastguard Agency is discussing all available options with its contractor Bristow Helicopters, following the closure of Manston Airport. Whatever the outcome, coverage in the area is not reduced.”

About 40 people fly and maintain Wattisham’s two helicopters but flight lieutenant, Bob Dewes, 45, said there would not be any job losses.

“A few of the staff will be going to the civilian side, a few retiring and some will be working elsewhere in the RAF,” he said.

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“The air force has done a lot of work in terms on working on what people will be doing next and taking us through that process.

“Everybody has enjoyed being based here. Suffolk is a nice place to be and we do quite a few interesting rescues from here over shipping lanes and out at oil rigs.

“The primary role for us is in military rescue but we are getting less and less of those jobs; that has come at a time when the Sea Kings have come to the end of their working life span.”

Flt Lt Dewes, who is a pilot, said their skills would be transferable to flying other helicopters within the RAF.

A mixed fleet of 22 state-of-the-art Sikorsky S92 and AgustaWestland AW189 helicopters will replace the ageing Sea Kings across at least nine UK bases.

Maggie Aggiss, curator of Wattisham Airfield’s museum, said a new display covering the Sea Kings would be created. She said: “The crews have offered to put up a new display in the museum and we will be featuring them in our new documentary film.

“It’s been good to still have a RAF presence – people are interested in what the search and rescue teams do and have done.”

A Sea King helicopter crew, which provides around the clock cover, consists of two pilots, a winchman and a winch operator.

The DfT has said there will be an improvement in flying times to incidents of around 20% ( from 23 to 19 minutes) with the new service.

Around 85% of high and very-high risk areas within the UK could be covered within 30 minutes – compared to the current 70%, a Dft spokesman added.