UK – SAR Training Unit celebrates 50 years
For the past half century Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter crews trained by an RAF Valley based unit have saved countless lives. On station to rescue downed arcrew military helicopter crews have been there to pluck to safety all in peril.
With search and rescue being, by it’s very nature, often extremely dangerous the training of crews to the very highest of standards is essential, a task which falls to the Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) who celebrate their fiftieth anniversary this year.
Close to the mountains of Snowdonia, the cliffs of Anglesey and merchant shipping, RAF Valley is considered an ideal venue for SAR training. The training of dedicated SAR Crews started in 1962 when 3 Squadron CFS(H), a lodger unit parented by RAF Ternhill, began training at the North Wales base, replacing the hitherto ad hoc SAR training given by individual squadrons responsible for developing their own techniques and procedures.
Equipped with the Westland Whirlwind Mk 10, the unit became the Search and Rescue Training Squadron of 2 FTS in 1977 before being retitled SARTU two years later.
The replacement of the Whirlwind with the Wessex in the eighties saw the introduction of more realistic training, the greater performance and 300ft winch of the larger helicopter being a marked step forward. The arrival of the Griffin in 1997 coincided with a transfer from Strike Command to the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury. Today SARTU operate three Griffins and three of the larger AW139 helicopters.
For the Commanding Officer, Sqn Ldr Jamie Mitchell, SARTU is a centre of excellence with a worldwide reputation.
“Every SAR base in the UK, Falklands and Cyprus has crews saving lives who started their SAR careers here. Beyond that there are a number of international bases who similarly learned their skills on this unit.
“I am not aware of any other unit like ours and a number of countries are interested in sending students to SARTU” he added. “We’ve been training rear crew for international partners for a number of years but since the introduction of the AW.139s in 2009 the scope of the training we deliver has broadened.
“We’re also at the cutting edge of virtual technology which enhances the pre- and post flying briefings and debriefings, and now deliver night SAR role training on both the Griffin and AW.139.”
All RAF pilots and rearcrew destined for the six Sea King SAR Flights of 22 and 202 Squadrons around the UK or 84 Squadron in Cyprus undergo a dedicated advanced SAR course; four weeks for pilots, four months for rear crew.
In addition, SARTU also provides all RAF helicopter crew undergoing training at DHFS with SAR and mountain flying skills, the students spending a fortnight at Valley.
With all Navy and Marine crewmen destined for the Sea King Mk.4 attending an eight week course at Valley, and experienced SAR rearcrew undertaking their instructor courses with SARTU also, the unit is exceptionally busy.
“The Navy also send us their ab initio SAR pilots and they do five months with us culminating in the award of their wings” said Sqn Ldr Mitchell, a former Navy pilot himself. “That course has been running for 18 months and delivers the whole gambit of helicopter flying ending with a two day SAR exercise from Prestwick which includes the RNLI and other external agencies.
Rear crew are selected for the SAR Force on one of four pre-select courses run each year. “We look for trainability, lateral thinking and the ability to plan on the move and to change the plan on the move” said Mark O’Leary, one of many ex-RAF personnel serving with SARTU today who formerly served with the unit whilst in uniform.
With 16 years on SARTU, first in the RAF on the Wessex and now as a civilian with FB Heliservices where he is Assistant Training Officer, Mark is an advocate of the joint military and civilian make-up of the unit.
“This is one of the best examples of integration between the civil and military and to work this closely together we have to be fully integrated” said Mark. “We are all ex-military and still have the military ethos and do things because they need to be done, not because we’re being paid to do them.”
Some 60% of the 40 aircrew are civilian, plus 30 civilian engineering, safety equipment and support personnel.
The unit has on occasion been called in to undertake rescues as Steve Garrod, a former-RAF pilot who also served on SARTU before he left the service in 1990 but who has since returned with the DHFS, explained: “We’ve done a few jobs over the years where we’ve been tasked on SAR operations, either in support of the SAR Force and, on occasion, in place of.” He added, “There have been occasions when we have been in the vicinity when a canoeing or yachting incident is happening. For example, once a flare was seen whilst on a training sortie and a kayaker was rescued from the sea.
The saddest task for SARTU was perhaps attendance at the crash scene of Pan Am 103 at Lockerbie in December 1988 when 270 passengers, crew and residents died following a terrorist attack. “We put four aircraft in the air shortly after the incident happened and two Wessex spent 24 hours up there supporting the emergency services” said Steve.
The consistency of having such experienced personnel pays dividends. “The unit has not changed hugely, we still do things today which I learnt during training” explained Steve. “A lot of which we do has stood the test of time although we have refined the training to meet the needs of bigger and more capable front line aircraft.
“Because the SAR techniques use all members if the crew then here is perhaps where aspects of crew co-operation are first seriously encountered” said Steve who added: “Like any training unit our end product is on the television screens at regular intervals which gives great satisfaction.
On visiting SARTU there is a very clear sense of pride in the training they deliver, a tightly knit team dedicated to deliver on the Unit motto of That Lives May Be Saved,
“Being OC SARTU has been the highlight of my career” said Sqn Ldr Mitchell. “I work alongside some immensely talented and courageous people who have moved away from doing what every SAR person loves doing to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
“Since I’ve been here my staff have received two AOCs commendations and a CinC’s Commendation.” He added: We have a wide range of charitable endeavour but are closely affiliated with the North Wales Chrysalis Trust who provide support to the bereaved families who have lost children.
SARTU will celebrate their anniversary with a formal dinner and other events at RAF Valley on 18-19 May.
Source: 6 May 2012 - Helihub News
Photo: For the past half century Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter and trainer personnel (Photo by helihub.com)