Goodbye RAF Search and Rescue

Andrew English with a Sea King
RAF Search and Rescue has used Sea Kings since 1978 Credit: Jay Williams

As the RAF Search and Rescue service is disbanded, Andrew English spends time with the last squadron and its Westland Sea King helicopter

My wife used to cry when she saw the RAF’s Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters clattering over the Cornish beaches and headlands. I always found it ironic because with no sea legs to speak of, she would be unlikely to have to call on their services, although I sort-of knew why she got so emotional. The Westland Sea King is like an old Labrador: slow, ungainly and covered in mysterious lumps and bumps. But it is also a symbol of man’s selflessness when it comes to rescuing his fellows.

These cadmium-yellow paraffin parrots might be an analogue-affront in a digital age; a noisy, wappety, kerosene-smelling dipsomaniac machine that’s been deafening crews for more than half a century. But they’re also the thing you pray for when all hope seems lost. On nights when the rain spatters against the windows like gravel, the wind moans like cantankerous wolves and you snuggle under the blankets, the Sea King crews will be out there, rescuing people.

Or at least, they would have been until last week. That was when the RAF's 22 Squadron, based in Chivenor, handed over responsibility for search and rescue to private contractor Bristow Helicopters Ltd. It was the last of the RAF’s six Search and Rescue bases to do so. But before that, I was lucky enough to join the crew on operations.

Originally derived from an American Sikorsky-61 design, the Sea King was licensed by Westland to meet the requirements for a naval anti-submarine helicopter to replace the venerable Wessex. Fitted with twin Rolls-Royce Gnome engines, the first example flew in May 1969. The RAF got its first variants in 1977, with more ordered in the Eighties and Nineties; Chivenor operated the Mk3As which were brought into service in 1995.

After serving as a rescue pilot, Prince William lobbied to save the service Credit: Getty Images

The Sea King is 54ft 9in long, 16ft 10in high and weighs 6.1 tons empty. It has a typical operating weight of about 8.5 tons and the absolute maximum take-off weight is 9.55 tons. “After that, we start to throw kit out,” says Flt Lt Jon “Giraffe” Hill. “We know the weight of all the standard lifesaving kit, even down to the carabiners.”

Top speed is 144mph, although in aviation everything is measured in nautical miles instead of statute ones – 1 nm = 1.15 statute miles – with an absolute range of more than 750 miles and effective operating radius of 250 miles. Typically, the machine will burn about 1,100lbs of kerosene fuel an hour, or 131.1 gallons. At a typical maximum speed of 116 knots, or 133.5mph, that means fuel consumption of, as-near-as-makes-no-difference, one gallon per mile.

Flying a helicopter involves three-way dexterity, with three major controls to keep the machine stable in three planes; it’s like simultaneously icing a cake, playing Scrabble and having a sword fight.

The major controls consist of a joystick-like device called “the cyclic”, which controls the pitch of each of the main blades as it makes one cycle and moves the helicopter forward, backward or sideways; a handbrake-like device called “the collective lever”, which controls the pitch on all five of the 61-foot-diameter main rotor blades together; and the foot-operated pedals, which control the pitch of the blades on the tail rotor and therefore the yaw.

A simple way of looking at this, according to Flt Lt Jon “Jevs” Evans, is to think of the rotor as a disc with a big lift arrow coming out of the top; the cyclic tilts this arrow in the desired direction and the collective makes it bigger or smaller – the yaw pedals just keep you pointing in the right direction.

Andrew English on a Sea King winch

The engines are computer controlled and will automatically fuel up or down according to the demands of the pilot as he moves the collective. Before you take a helicopter for a joy ride, however, you also need to know that each control affects the other. So, if you demand more height with the collective, the torque reaction means you need more tail rotor effort to prevent the machine spinning round. But that means it will start to roll to one side, so you need to adjust the cyclic accordingly, which in turn means…

“It is really difficult at first,” admits Hill. “That’s why you don’t do any hovering for your first five hours of helicopter tuition, and when you first start you’d be lucky to manage more than 20 seconds of hover before the instructor is forced to take control.” In fact, each RAF pilot starts with six months training on fixed-wing aircraft, followed by 18 months on helicopters and a further six months intensive training on the specific machine they are to fly. These boys and girls are very good.

Just as well, I thought, as I gently launched myself into space on the end of a tiny cable while Flt Lt Lee “Zoolander” Docherty flew his 1995 HAR.3A Sea King backwards, against the wind, while keeping exact station with a cargo ship carrying 2,000 Nissans on 10 decks at eight knots down the Bristol Channel. For the first seconds your heart is in your mouth, and then confidence builds as the winch gear holds you fast. That feeling lasts another few seconds until you look down and see the deck plunging as waves carom six feet up the weather side of the ship and feel 40-knot gusts tugging at your immersion suit. Oh my gawd…

Winchman Sergeant Paul “Haz” Hunter was already on deck, giving a set of specific hand signal movements to winch operator Alex Brown – looking down on the winch hook it is very difficult to judge its height. Brown in turn keeps the pilots, Lee Docherty and Mark Fisk, informed of what is happening underneath the aircraft, an area they are completely blind to. Little by little, I am edged closer to the heaving green deck, to touch down with the slightest of jolts.

Outside of the fire service, these guys have got it entirely sewn up in terms of sex appeal. Wearing his bright orange immersion suit, open-face helmet in hand, shod and gloved in the softest leather and with a film-star’s grin affixed, Hunter strides down the deck to the ship’s bridge to thank the captain for allowing us to use his vessel for rescue practise. The skipper basks in Hunter’s warm gratitude, his crew look star struck and as for me, I’m practically swooning.

Trouble is, it’s not all bouncing about in this job, impressing the civvies. Crews are all volunteers, specially selected and highly competent, with rear cabin staff trained to NHS paramedic level, but sometimes the victims are very much the worse for wear. “It’s the injured children I find most upsetting,” Hunter tells me in the crew room after the sortie. He’s got a young son himself. He agrees that there is a sense of mission about the SAR service. “You’re in the forces, but you’re saving lives, not taking them,” he says.

It’s hardly surprising that stress can take its toll. This job can be very frightening and it is a crew’s decision whether they take off or not. Evans says that apart from downdrafts from mountain winds and the risks of lightning and severe turbulence from thunderclouds, the biggest danger is getting the rotors started in a big blow, as they’re so flexible they could cut the tail off in a gust. For that reason the ground crew will park the duty Sea King in the lee of the hanger if it looks like a storm is on the way.

But Atlantic storms are not the only life and death decisions faced by the crew. With twin engines the Sea King has a safety margin should one of them fail (not an entirely unknown event), but only up to a point. Power requirement is measured in percentage torque and each engine should be able to deliver about 130 per cent in the event the other one fails.

The Westland Sea King has an effective operating radius of 250 miles

Speed and load eat into that margin, however, and “Safe Single Engine” is where only up to 60 per cent of each engines’ torque is being used and the Sea King could lose one and still maintain its position. “Fly Away” is a condition of between 60 and 70 per cent of engine torque utilisation, where the helicopter would need to abort the mission and fly away and land. “Committed” is where if one engine gives way, the machine is going down. “It won’t crash,” says Hill, “because the other engine will be giving everything it’s got to keep you in the air, but you will be landing very soon wherever you are.”

Using the momentum of the rotor blades, a skilled pilot can bring a helicopter down safely, but being committed over water, mountains or trees is a nervous time for everyone.

The following day, Evans hovers off Baggy Point near Croyde as I am strapped into the harness and lowered over the churning white water. One of the most experienced pilots in the squadron, Evans is the subject of ribald teasing from his younger colleagues, but when he announces we are in a “Fly Away” condition, I’m glad he’s at the controls.

Dangling 20 feet off the toothpaste-white swell, I can smell the Sea King’s warm exhausts, which bring back bath night in my grandma’s paraffin-heated bathroom. As I look up, winch operator, Master Air Crewman Woody Woodward stares out of the side door, his face framed by the enormous yellow hull and haloed by the whirring blades. This is the view that most victims first get of their saviour, as if a passing god had stopped off to carry them off.

No wonder Mrs English cried at the thought of that machine and its crew, ready to risk everything to snatch a lost soul from Davey Jones’s grasp; everything’s going to be all right, the big old Sea King is here.

“You OK?” asks winchman Master Air Crewman Tim Thompson when I am unceremoniously hauled on board like a sack of potatoes.

“Yes, thanks,” I mutter. “Just something caught in my eye.”

Thanks to 22 Squadron A Flight air crew and ground staff


Tested: Westland Sea King HAR.3A, with twin Rolls-Royce Gnome H1400-2 turboshaft engines

Weight: 19,200lb with four-man crew and 2/3rds fuel load; maximum permissible weight, 21,400lb

Power: 1,650 shaft horsepower from each engine

Top speed: 144mph

Acceleration: 0-60mph in 9sec

Fuel economy (average): 1,100lb of paraffin jet fuel per hour; one gallon per mile

Range (theoretical): 750 miles, effective operating radius of 250 miles

Verdict: One of the last analogue helicopters, but still much revered for its stability and strength. The Sea King would still more than capable of bringing salvation from the air

Telegraph rating: Five stars out of five