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The following article appeared in the 1999 edition of The Royal Air Force Yearbook, a highly recommended read for all those interested in the RAF.

This magazine is published by the RAF Benevolent Fund Enterprises.

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

The article was written by Patrick Allen.

If you are fan of three, four and even five letter acronyms, this article is for you!

RAF Yearbook

Patrick Allen visits the RAF's
Search and Rescue Training Unit at Valley

"I am sitting in the back of a new Defence Helicopter Flying School Griffin HT1 at RAF Valley, about to take part in a practice homing sortie off the Anglesey coast. However, it is blowing a gale, the Irish Sea is looking distinctly uninviting and clouds are building to the west. It does not look promising, although thankfully it isn't raining - yet!"

Our helicopter, call-sign Pedro 91, is on the apron outside the Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) building. On board are an RAF Qualified Helicopter Instructor (QHI), a civilian Qualified Helicopter Crewman Instructor (QHCI) employed by FBS Limited (who is an ex-RAF SAR QHCI) and three RAF student pilots. The sortie this morning involves Personnel Locator Beacon (PLB) homings off the coast of Anglesey to demonstrate and practise the techniques of finding and homing onto a PLB, allowing each student pilot the opportunity to 'follow-the-needle' and fly homing sorties to a PLB thrown into the sea by the QHCI.

This is just one of the many training tasks undertaken at SARTU as part of the DHFS RAF student, ab-initio SAR Course and is the final phase of their Multi-Engine Advanced Rotary Wing (MEARW) training syllabus. As we await clearance to launch, a yellow SAR Sea King HAR3 from 'C' Flight, No 22 Squadron, located alongside SARTU is scrambled on a rescue mission. A second Griffin HT1, Pedro 90, with an RAF QHI, student RAF SAR pilot and RAF QHCI, plus two SAR crewman students equipped with an aircrew rescue dinghy, launches ahead of us for a two minute transit to Holyhead Harbour. There they will undertake a series of wet and deck winching exercises which will include winching to the deck of the MV Pinnace (1374), formerly of the RAF Marine Craft Unit, now operated by Vosper Thorneycroft Marine Services Limited. The company operate two vessels, the Pinnace and the MV Halifax which are available to DHFS/SARTU and the SAR Sea Kings of 'C' Flight, No 22 Squadron for deck winching training.

This is a typical Monday morning at SARTU at they undertake a busy daily training programme flying at least two, and often four sorties - morning and afternoon - using three specially equipped Griffin HT1s, with a fourth Griffin available from No.60 Squadron, DHFS during busier phases.


The majority of the RAF's SAR work involves rescuing civilians and their success over the years is borne out by the numerous awards, commendations and medals won by RAF SAR aircrew. High regard is given by the general public to the RAF's yellow painted SAR helicopters as they go about their daily business. The skill and professionalism of the RAF's SAR helicopter aircrews has been gained from many years of operational experience and from comprehensive SAR aircrew training package. The training is the responsibility of SARTU based at RAF Valley on the island of Anglesey, just off the north west coast of Wales. Formed in 1979 operating five Wessex HC2s, SARTU became part of the new civilianised tri-service Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) which was established at RAF Shawbury, Shropshire on 1 April 1997.

Although part of the DHFS, SARTU remains at Valley, which is geographically well placed - being adjacent to the sea and shipping lanes, a harbour, cliffs of varying height and the mountains of North Wales. Equipped with three Bell 412 Griffin HT1s, SARTU runs numerous SAR training courses which include the RAF SAR aircrew selection course, RAF SAR Pilot and Crewman courses and SAR Qualified Helicopter Instructor courses. It also hosts detachments of Royal Navy and Foreign and Commonwealth students from 705 Squadron during their operational flying phase as part of the DHFS Single-Engine Advanced Rotary Wing (SEARW) training syllabus, to undertake basic winching and mountain flying training.

The bulk of the SARTU training package involves the training of RAF SAR pilots and crewmen, and RAF ab-initio students, who receive a three week comprehensive training package at SARTU that forms Module 4 of the DHFS Multi-Engine Advanced Rotary Wing course (MEARW). This includes sea, cliff and boat winching 'situations' and advanced mountain flying training prior to the students returning to No 60 Squadron at RAF Shawbury to receive their 'wings'. Ten of these courses are held annually, training (on average) 30 RAF student pilots, ten navigators and 30 crewmen. RAF pilots, navigators and crewmen destined for the SAR Sea Kings of Nos 22 and 202 Squadrons, or the SAR Wessex of No 84 Squadron, will subsequently return to SARTU for the RAF SAR course. Other courses include SAR aircrew refresher courses, training Foreign & Commonwealth SAR aircrew and QHI/QHCI courses.

Under Sqn Ldr Lee Calderwood, Officer Commanding, SARTU, the unit has a complement of 20 staff instructors, both RAF and civilian. Civilian instructors are all ex-military and trained to Central Flying School (CFS) standards. The majority are ex-RAF SAR QHI/QHCIs employed by the DHFS civilian contractor consortium FBS Limited, who also supply and maintain the helicopters. There are 13 military instructors, five QHIs including the boss, and seven QHCIs plus seven civilian instructors comprising two QHIs and five QHCIs.

When SARTU became part of the new DHFS, the familiar yellow Wessex HC2s used for many years at SARTU were retired, and replaced with the new Bell 412 Griffin HT1. The Griffin HT1 also replaced the Wessex as the RAF's MEARW training helicopter and six are operated by No 60 Squadron at RAF Shawbury. Having completed their Single Engine Basic (SEB) training with 660 Squadron and SEARW training syllabus with 705 Squadron on the Squirrel HT1, RAF students remain at Shawbury, moving to No 60 Squadron for multi-engine training on the Griffin HT1.

RAF student pilots, navigators and crewmen remain with No 60 Squadron for 25 weeks and undertake four training modules: Type Conversion, Advanced Training and Tactical Deployment, with the final module at SARTU. When students arrive at SARTU they will have flown around 55 hours in the Griffin HT1, achieved a basic instrument flying standard and completed the basic DHFS mountain flying phase with 705 squadron. During their 15 working days at SARTU, they will fly a further 15 hours learning basic SAR helicopter techniques and advanced mountain flying, with one hour 45 minutes flying a SAR training mission solo.


For the SAR training role, the three SARTU Griffin HT1s are equipped with floatation equipment, UHF homer, a cabin sea tray to protect the cabin from sea water, plus a multi-speed (0-300 ft/pm) electrical winch/hoist with 250ft of cable and a maximum loading of 600lb. The large cabin of the Griffin is ideal for SAR training and is capable of carrying six people in comfort in addition to the two in the cockpit. It has a comprehensive suite of avionics and navigational aids, and a cruise speed of l20kt, with an endurance of approximately three hours and a maximum take-off weight of 11,900lbs (5410kg). The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3D Turbo Twin-Pac (two coupled PT6 engines) rated at 1910shp (1425kW) driving an advanced design four blade main rotor, gives the Griffin lots of power and excellent single-engine emergency capability when operating for long periods in the low hover over the sea, and extra power during the more demanding phases of the advanced mountain flying phase.


As part of their DHFS MEARW(RAF) course, RAF students - pilots, navigators and crewmen - spend 15 working days at SARTU, learning basic SAR helicopter techniques and advanced mountain flying skills. Student pilots are shown how to fly and hover over the water and the techniques used to operate to ships and cliffs. Student ab-initio crewmen are trained in both winch operator and winchman techniques and learn how to give precise helicopter positioning instructions known as 'the patter' during various winching sorties. These begin with circuits, hovering over land and wet winching to a drum placed in the sea, progressing to deck winching techniques and situation winching exercises in various scenarios such as trapped decks, high-line winching, cliff winching, and PLBs. Students learn how to conduct a search plan and SAR mission management, prior to moving onto the Advanced Mountain Flying phase in Snowdonia. At the end of their course, student pilots will have flown 15 hours, navigators six hours 45 minutes and crewmen ten hours 30 minutes. Ten such courses are conducted per year.

As well as undertaking ab-initio training, SARTU is also responsible for SAR Crewmen Selection, running a ten day selection course with eight hours 15 minutes flying to assess the suitability of candidates for further SAR training - sorties include dry and wet winching as both winch operator and winchman. As the longest courses run at SARTU are to train SAR crewmen, this assessment is vital. The SAR Pilot course covers the same disciplines as the ab-initio pilot course, but is flown to a higher standard, using significantly more challenging scenarios. Although flown in the Griffin HT1, the course follows the Sea King Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs) as closely as possible and lasts 15 working days with 15 flying training hours. SAR training sorties include winching with single and double strops, long leads and extended cables. It also includes more demanding winching exercises to the decks of the two training boats, smaller inflatable boats, cliffs of varying heights and PLB homings, as well as mountain situation winching.

The longest and most comprehensive course at SARTU, the SAR Crewman Course introduces all aspects of SAR winch operator and winchman techniques. Students who have successfully passed the SARTU selection course undertake eight weeks' training, which includes 61 hours 15 minutes flying training. The course trains selected aircrew to meet the SAR crewman entry standard for the RAF Sea King Operational Conversion Unit (SKOCU) with No 203(R) Squadron at RAF St Mawgan. Prior to arriving at SARTU, these students will have spent several weeks on an Immediate Emergency Care (IEC) course and a week with the Oxford Ambulance Service to gain experience of emergency care. Student crewmen undertake all aspects of SAR operations, concentrating on winching techniques, and during their training alternate between winch operator and winchman.

The SAR Qualified Helicopter Instructor (SAR/QHI) and SAR Qualified Helicopter Crewman Instructor (SAR/QHCI) courses are postgraduate courses for QHIs prior to instructing in a SAR environment. The QHCI course is of 15 days duration with 15 flying hours although QHIs with no previous operational SAR experience will fly all of the dual sorties on the SAR Pilot Course. Pilots must have completed the CFS(H) QHI course, and the aim of the course is to prepare QHIs for instructional duties in the SAR role, prior to taking up appointments at either SARTU, SKOCU or as a Squadron Training Officer on either Nos 22 or 202 Squadrons. For SAR QHCIs, the course lasts six weeks with 29 hours 45 minutes flying time. QHCIs must be in current flying practise as a SAR crewman and have flown at least 300 hours in the role and hold an 11/18 Group B flying category or equivalent. The aim of the course is to teach selected QHCI-qualified SAR winch operators and winchmen to instruct in the SAR role before taking up appointments at DHFS, SARTU, SKOCU or as Training Officers on Nos 22 or 202 Squadrons or with 11/18 Group. The course comprises 13 hours 30 minutes flying training, with a standardisation phase for dry, wet, deck and situation winching techniques, and a further 16 hours 15 minutes teaching phase. A final handling check is flown with the CFS Local Examiner (Crewman) leading to a Certificate of Instruction.

Finally, SARTU undertakes SAR Pilot and Crewman courses for Foreign and Commonwealth students similar to the RAF courses, although pilots must have a minimum of 200 hours as a first pilot on helicopters and speak good English. The Pilot course lasts five weeks, including one week conducting HUET and sea survival training with 20 hours flown at SARTU - five hours acclimatisation flying, and 15 hours SAR training, following the RAF SAR Pilot course syllabus. Crewmen stay for nine weeks with 41 flying hours SAR training. SARTU also runs a course for Foreign and Commonwealth SAR QHCIs that lasts for seven weeks, with 29 hours 45 minutes flying.

Unlike many of the MEARW training sorties flown with 60 Squadron - when student pilots, navigators and crewmen can all benefit from a single sortie - missions at SARTU are often flown to a specific training profile. For example, a wet winching sortie on the SAR Crewman course will need to be flown by an Instructor Pilot, along with a staff QHCI, who will fly specific hovering profiles to provide maximum training value to the student SAR crewman.

Despite having undergone huge changes over the last year, there continues to be a wealth of experience and dedication by all at SARTU to provide the RAF with the highest standard of trained SAR pilots, navigators and crewmen, and DHFS RAF ab-initio students with valuable experience of SAR helicopter and mountain flying techniques.

The ethos at SARTU remains the same as it ever was and is expressed by the unit's motto

'That lives may be saved'.