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Flying Units of the RAF

by
Alan Lake


 

The following article appeared in the 2005 edition of The Royal Air Force Yearbook, a highly recommended read for all those interested in the RAF.

Many thanks to the editor of the Yearbook (Peter March) for permission to use this piece.

Click here to visit the RAF Benevolent Fund web site.

The article was written by Dylan Eklund.

RAF Yearbook

Dylan Eklund visits the
Search & Rescue Training Unit at RAF Valley.

That lives may be saved

Perhaps no event in recent times has illustrated the skill and cool professionalism of the RAF's Search and Rescue force than the events of 16 August 2004. As a torrent of mud and water demolished their village, the residents of Boscastle in Cornwall sought refuge wherever they could. As the floodwaters rose all were saved, some plucked from precarious places of refuge by the bright yellow Sea Kings of the RAF who, along with helicopters from the Royal Navy and Coastguard, had scrambled to their aid.
All the crews involved in the rescues, seen on TV by millions across the world, would have at some point passed through the Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) at RAF Valley on Anglesey. The unit is part of the Defense Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) which, since 1997, has provided the three services with privately contracted helicopter training.

The external modifications to the Griffins used by SARTU comprise the flotation bags mounted on the fuselage and the starboard mounted winch.

The Team

SARTU has a dedicated team of ten pilot and 18 rear crew instructors. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but all will have undertaken an operational SAR tour at some point in their military careers, and with some instructors having over 10,000 hours and in excess of 500 SAR missions under their belts, there is certainly no shortage of experience. SARTU mirrors DHFS in having a 60/40 mix of regular and civilian pilots and rear crew. Some are serving RAF officers, others former military pilots now employed by DHFS and the unit is very keen to maintain its military ethos.
The commanding officer of SARTU is Sqn Ldr Sue Brown, whose previous tours have included flying the Wessex in Hong Kong and Northern Ireland and Sea King at RAF Boulmer. Commenting on the overall aim of SARTU she said: "What we do is fairly straightforward generic training. We aim to give students a toolbox of skills, which they can take away to their operational squadrons, be it Sea King, Chinook, Puma, Merlin or Griffin,"

Pilot Training

All students destined for the RAF support helicopter force receive a degree of SAR training, as an integral part of their course, with the Multi-Engine Advanced Rotary Wing (MEARW) at RAF Shawbury, The RAF students spend three weeks at sARTU receiving specialist training, something their fellow Army and Navy students do not receive, Whilst at Valley they fly a total of 14 hours on sARTU helicopters to acquire the basic flying skills pertinent to SAR, including winching and survivor awareness.
On completion of their short stay on Anglesey the student pilots then return to Shawbury and complete the MEARW course, sARTU will make recommendations to DHFs on a student's suitability for SAR to DHFs, who will stream students on to the various frontline helicopter types before graduation. Those destined for the SAR Force will then return to Valley for further training before moving to the Sea King OCU at RAF St Mawgan, No 203(R) Squadron. Sqn Ldr Brown: "We're looking for aptitude for the job -someone with a good grasp of the basic SAR techniques, a lateral thinker and keen to come to the SAR Force. However, slots are limited and competition can be intense"
:Having been taught how to fly the Griffin, the ob initio course teaches students how to operate the aircraft in the SAR role. The aim is to enable students at the end of the course to be fully trained on SAR, enabling them to concentrate on learning to fly the more complex Sea King when they arrive at the OCU. Sqn Ldr Brown: "We test to ensure that they are fully competent before they leave for the OCU, which in turn will make them combat ready"
Pilots transferring from other helicopter types within the RAF are also trained at SARTU. They too are given the basics of SAR skills but do not convert on to the Griffin, always flying with an experienced captain, who remains in command of the aircraft.

With SARTU being the only dedicated specialist SAR training unit in Europe, its servIces are in demand.

 

 

The Griffin HTl is the military version of the Bell 412, and was introduced into RAF service with the Defence Helicopter Flying School in 1997.

Crewmen Training

The first step for those who wish to become either a winch operator or winchman is to volunteer -nobody is posted to SAR. The SARTU Pre-Select Course evaluates students primarily from other specializations, for example the Nimrod fleet. Students experience eight hours of flying, at the end of which each is graded on his or her suitability for a career in SAR. Five such courses are run annually and there is no shortage of volunteers.
If selected, each student will, if appropriate, attend a basic loadmaster training course at RAF Cranwell before progressing to specialist training at Shawbury. Save for a short familiarisation flight on the Squirrel HT1, this is conducted entirely on the Griffin. The majority, however, will have already completed at least one tour on an operational helicopter squadron and will progress directly to SARTU. Whilst at Shawbury the rear crew also receive 11 hours of generic SAR training at Valley on their own ab initio course.
With a duration of 14 weeks, the crewman's long course is the longest SARTU offers. It includes 60 hours in the air, although pilot and rear crew students do not fly together. Students are paired off and alternate on training sorties between winchman and winch operator, something which engenders a great deal of trust. The course aim is to present students with a variety of challenging situations to cope with, the simulated scenarios becoming progressively more difficult before culminating in a simulated call out. This could, for example, be a casualty stranded at the foot of a cliff, lying on the deck of a boat or ship, or a combination of the two.
Rear crew instructor MALM Mark O'Healy comments:"We don't teach rear crew how to do the job. We teach them procedures but most importantly we teach them how to think and solve problems which is the hardest part in transitioning from the initial academic phase aims to the applied phase"
For Sgt Adrian Cooper, who previously served a tour on the Nimrod, the training at Valley is challenging: "The whole course has been a very steep learning curve, far more so than any other course during my time in the RAF. For example, every flight is assessed". He added: "Everyone wants to pass and there is a great deal of self-inflicted pressure: Sgt Jim Bethell a direct entrant, echoed this view: "Each sortie is draining, both physically and mentally and one is exhausted at the end of it"
Rear crew are streamed at the end of their course to either winch man or winch operator, although students profess to a desire to be on the end of the wire where, as they put it, there is 'more action'.

Local Training

For many years SARTU used a pair of ex-RAF Marine Craft Unit boats for deck-winching. These have now been replaced by a single vessel, alternating between the MV Smit Yare and MV Smit Cwbran, both provided by Smit lid via a contract with the Warship Agency and based at Holyhead. The unit also makes full use of the cooperation of Irish Sea ferry captains who permit winching whilst underway.
With as many as 16 different courses running concurrently the tempo of sorties is, weather permitting, high. Five designated winching areas are used along the northern coast of Anglesey together with Holyhead harbour. Mountain flying is conducted in Snowdonia, a short flight away to the south.
It is inevitable that working in SAR personnel will be witness to some distressing sights. On the advanced course a military community psychiatric nurse will chat to students and provide practical advice on the management of post-traumatic stress disorder. This in turn is followed by further advice at the OCU. Early in their training SAR students also spend time with ambulance crews, an abrupt introduction to the realities of dealing with accident casualties.
 

International Training

With SARTU being the only dedicated specialist SAR training unit in Europe, its services are in demand. The Croatian Air Force has contracted to train a single SAR crew to a basic level whilst trainees from Bristows, who operate SAR helicopters for HM Coastguard, and Army Air Corps pilots destined for 7 Flight in Brunei, will also be trained this year. Such work can be accommodated relatively easily by the SARTU team with the benefit that a proportion of the income generated is returned to DHFS.

Future Operations

In the longer term, the Support Amphibious Battlefield Rotorcraft (SABR) project is examining the replacement for the existing SAR fleet, be it RAF, Fleet Air Arm, or Marine and Coastguard Agency. With the likely conclusion that a common platform should be adopted, then SARTU will be an obvious choice to provide common generic training for all three SAR operators.
Indeed the future for helicopter operations at Valley is very bright. The Sea King OCU (No 203(R) Squadron), the Combined SAR Force headquarters and the Sea King simulator will arrive from RAF St Mawgan in 2006. They will be accommodated in a new complex alongside No 22 Squadron HO Flight (currently at RMB Chivenor) to be built adjacent to the current SARTU building. However, Valley's reputation as a centre of excellence for SAR training has already been forged by SARTU which, as the residents of Boscastle will testify, produces the best SAR crews in the world.