NARRATIVE BY CHRIS W. BALMER & IMAGES BY CHRIS W. BALMER AND MARK ROURKE
The yellow life savers of Wattisham.
Pixelsnipers recently had the opportunity to visit B flight of 22 Squadron SAR (Search & Rescue) at Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk, and spent an afternoon on base to find out more about them, their mission and the venerable Sea King platform they use on a daily basis.
Wattisham Airfield, formerly known as RAF Wattisham, is located in Suffolk, and is now the largest centralised active army airfield in the UK. Whilst the RAF are currently represented there by B Flight of 22 Squadron, the majority of the airfield is occupied by 3 and 4 Regiment Army Air Corps (part of the 16 Air Assault Brigade headquarted in nearby Colchester). Alongside the Apache helicopters of the AAC, Wattisham is also home to 7 Air Assault Battalion REME, 132 Aviation Supply Unit and elements of the Royal Logistical Corps.
The airfield itself opened in 1939, and has had a long and varied history associated with the RAF, with the based Bristol Blenheim bombers being the first to launch attacks on Germany just 29 hours after the declaration of war with Germany in WWII. Use of the airfield was also made by the USAAF in WWII with the arrival of the 497th Fighter Group in 1944. In it’s post war use, the RAF used the airfield extensively with aircraft including the Gloster Meteor, Gloster Javelin, EE Lightning, Hawker Hunters and the McDonnell Douglas Phantom.
The airfield was closed as an RAF station in 1992, and fully handed over the the British Army in 1993.
What is SAR?
The Royal Air Force Search & Rescue Force(SARF) currently operates a 24 hour search and rescue service that covers not only the UK, but a large surrounding area that extends into the Atlantic ocean as well as the North sea. It’s primary mission is to provide search and rescue services to military personnel in distress, but also assists in the recovery of civilians who are in severe difficulties both on land or at sea. The civilian rescue services are a delegated responsibility to the Ministry Of Defence from the Department of Transport, who have primary responsibility for general search and rescue of any type throughout the UK Search and Rescue Region.
Whilst operating these roles, the SARF works closely with other military branches and civilian services such as the Coastguard and Police across the UK. The RAF currently have 2 squadrons (22 and 202) that operate from a total of 6 different locations across Britain, and are supported by further helicopters from the Royal Navy and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Ground support is primarily supplied by the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams(MRTs) who are based in 4 different areas of the UK for maximum coverage. From an international perspective SARF is also maintained in Cyprus (84 Squadron) and the Falkland Islands (1564 Flight).
How does it all work?
HM Coastguard is responsible in the UK for coordinating all maritime SAR efforts, whilst land based duties are the responsibility of the Police. There used to be 2 ARCCs (Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre) in the UK, but these were combined into 1 unit now based at the former RAF Kinloss base in northern Scotland. This single centre now, and has done since 1997, coordinates all relevant SAR related requests, and also tasks and coordinates the RAF MRTs to assist where and when applicable. This coordination includes the management of distress & diversion cells, air traffic control, medical, fire service, police, maritime coastguard agency, and the mountain rescue teams.
22 Squadron and it’s helicopters.
This squadron was initially formed in 1915 at Fort Grange, Gosport as an aerial reconnaissance unit of the Royal Flying Corps. It did not become a dedicated SAR unit until 1955, and from this point on it operated a progression of Sycamore, Whirlwind and Wessex Helicopters, culminating with the Sea King which it still flies today.
The squadron had various homes over the years including Martlesham Heath, Donibristle, Thorney Island, St Mawgan, Chivenor , Brawdy, Coltishall and Wattisham. The entire SARF now operates out of Chivenor (‘A’ Flight), Wattisham (‘B’ Flight) and Valley (‘C’ Flight), with the 22 squardon headquarters being based at RAF Valley.
22 squadron initially started it’s SAR role using Whirlwind Mk 2s in 1956 and flew them until they were replaced by the Wessex HC2 in 1981. These were then replaced by the Sea King HAR.3 in 1997. These HAR.3s were replaced by the HAR.3A models of which the RAF procured a total of 6 airframes for use within the SARF.
The move to the Sea King platform by the SARF was made in 1978 by other elements of the SARF, whilst 22 Squadron kept it’s Wessex helicopters flying until the mid 1990’s when they then moved to the Sea King HAR.3. The Sea King introduced some major changes to its predecessors due to its larger capacity, longer range, increased number of crew, and enhanced all weather and night capabilities.
The Sea King.
To make the transition from the Wessex platform, the RAF established an Operational Conversion Unit at St Mawgan in 1996 in order to provide training for the new Sea King equipment. This encountered a few teething problems, and was not fully ready until 1997. At this point the 3A model was then fully introduced into service to replace the final Wessex helicopters, and gave the RAF a Sea King only SARF. This consisted of 22 Squadron with Mk 3As at Chivenor and Wattisham , Mk 3s at Valley and 202 Squadron with Mk 3s at Boulmer, Lossiemouth and Leconfield.
The Mk3A was designed to be optimised for SAR use by employing an enhanced autopilot system, flight path computers, and a new auto hover system. Navigation capabilities were improved drastically by utilising an addition of an upgraded navigation system that provided a total of 4 separate independent methods to compare positions. The intention was for the co pilot to manage this system in order to control and utilise the most accurate path for the pilot to fly.
The improved autopilot/flight path computer allowed the pilot to enter the desired heading, speed, and altitude into a flight computer, and the helicopter would take him to his destination literally hands free – this was a far cry from previous SAR helicopters that required extensive “hands on “ flying. The Sea King was optimised for flight below an altitude of 1000 feet by using a new radar altimeter feature that could also automatically descend the helicopter to 50 feet at the touch of a button. This system automatically works out the best flightpath for the helicopter to get to 50 feet, and enters a hover at that point – typically when a rescue is required and the winch operator would start his operations.
Another major improvement in the Sea King was the introduction of the Sea Searcher Radar system. This all digital system replaces the old analogue radar platform, and offers a 360 degree coverage by being placed in the distinctive black painted blister mounted on the top of the fuselage. Sea Searcher can be operated as a primary radar, or as a combined primary and secondary radar. Operators have the option of a sector scan, in which the display shows only targets and ground within a chosen segment. Sea Searcher also generates navigation and tactical plots even when the radar is off, as it might be to preserve radio silence. Other features include the built-in ability to directly communicate with other aircraft and ship radar systems for increased coverage and performance.
From the summer of 2015, the SARF will stand down giving way to the primary SAR responsibility being taken on by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency using equipment and personnel provided by Bristow Helicopters Ltd. The privatisation of the SAR role will therefore end the role of the RAF and Royal Navy in this capacity that they have been undertaking since 1941.
Under the new contract, 22 helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK owned and managed by the Bristow Group. Ten S-92’s will be based, two per site at Stornoway, Sumburgh, Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside. Ten AW 189’s will operate, two per site from Lee-on-the-solent, Prestwick, St Athan, Inverness and Manston.
Our thanks go to the flight and ground crews at Wattisham for their assistance with this article, and also to Flt Lt Pete Howard for organising the visit.