Search and Rescue (SAR)

10 February 2014

Contact Our Team

For more information about how Halldale can add value to your marketing and promotional campaigns or to discuss event exhibitor and sponsorship opportunities, contact our team to find out more


The America's -

Rest of World -


MS&T’s Dim Jones describes training at the UK SAR Training Unit, a part of the Defence Helicopter Flying School, and observes the end of an era.

The RAF’s Search and Rescue (SAR) Force was created in February 1941, following a meeting convened by Air Marshal Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, in order to address the issue of the number of downed Allied aircrew lost in the English Channel during the Battle of Britain; the initial fixed-wing aircraft gave way to helicopters in the 50s. Meanwhile, the RN used helicopters for SAR from the time they were introduced to service on HM Ships and, in 1953, formed SAR flights at seven RN shore bases in UK. Since then, although intended for the recovery of military aircrew (which remains its primary role), the SAR force has saved, or assisted in saving, the lives of countless merchant seamen and civilians, earning the lasting gratitude of their beneficiaries, and justified recognition by the public for their professionalism and bravery. The service until recently could boast of HRH Prince William as an operational RAF SAR captain, and this has served to heighten the role of the SAR Force in the public consciousness. I can also say from personal experience that there are few better sights than the approach of a ‘big yellow budgie’, when one is sat in a dinghy which was not one’s preferred mode of transport when one started the journey.


SAR is something of a ‘dark art’, even to those engaged in other rotary wing activities, and many aircrew, particularly rear crew, remain in the role for most or all of their flying careers. Operations from some bases where there is no other air activity, plus the lifestyle demanded of on-call shift work, can also lead to a slight detachment from mainstream operations. SAR is a challenging and, on occasion, hazardous business, demanding exceptional individual flying and operating ability, teamwork of the highest order and, since the life of one crew member can – and frequently does – depend on another, absolute trust. It follows, therefore, that the standard of training required is extremely high. The Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) is a part of the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS), and is based at Valley, the location of which affords easy access to sea, coastlines and cliffs, and the mountains of Snowdonia.

Pilots destined for SAR will either come direct from training, or on posting from the Support Helicopter (SH) force. In the former case, they will have undergone elementary training on the Grob Tutor, been streamed to RW, and arrived at DHFS for a composite course, firstly on the single-engined Squirrel and then on the twin-engined Griffin, a derivative of the Bell 412. During the Griffin course, students will undergo a two week training module at SARTU, which will include the basics of SAR – dry-, drum- and deck-winching (wet-winching may be introduced in the future), mountain flying and transfers to an inshore rescue boat (IRB). At the end of the DHFS course, pilots receive their ‘wings’, and those with both the aptitude and desire to fly SAR will arrive back at SARTU en-route to the OCU and front line.

Those destined for Winch Operator and Winchman duties will have undergone aptitude testing for rear crew at the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at Cranwell, and subsequently generic rear crew training, from which they emerge as Weapons Systems Operators (WSOps). Those streamed to RW will then move straight to the Griffin squadron at DHFS, during which they will train in both SH and SAR disciplines. On completion of the DHFS course, those selected for SAR will move to SARTU to join their flight deck colleagues.

A word here about the nuances of SAR might be apposite, from one who has dabbled in it just sufficiently to appreciate how far removed it is from being as easy as the professionals make it look. For the pilots, the job of flying the helicopter in SAR is fairly standard, although the conditions in which one might be required to do so are most certainly not. The mountains of Snowdonia, although small by global standards (indeed, not high enough to be classed as foothills to the major ranges of the world) nevertheless - by virtue of their distinctive geography and weather - create unique challenges. Neither is hovering close to a ship rolling in a Force 8 gale at night, avoiding the superstructure and gyrating masts while trying to place a Winchman safely on the deck, run-of-the-mill helicopter flying. However, it is ‘down the back’ where the real learning from scratch is done at SARTU. The rear crewman is trained for two quite different jobs, and they are interchangeable. The Winch Operator (WinchOp) does what it says on the tin – he controls the winch and its cable, on the end of which hangs his crew-mate the Winchman. However, he also has to interpret the signals given to him by the Winchman, and convert these into directions for the pilot, who may not be able to see what is going on, and is probably quite busy enough avoiding gyrating masts or mountainside; the WinchOp also has to monitor the height and general safety of the aircraft. Directions are somewhat complicated by the fact that the WinchOp is looking out of the aircraft (and down) from the side door, which is at an angle of 90o to the axis of the aircraft. Therefore, what he is seeing as left and right is, in fact, forward and back to the pilot, and this is how any instructions must be relayed. The Winchman, meanwhile, is attempting to manoeuvre himself into a safe position to recover a survivor from the water, or to make a landing on the deck or on the ground.


Attempting these duties for the first time in a real aircraft would be a nerve-wracking experience, although it was done before the advent of effective simulation. The simulation equipment at SARTU may not look like the inside of a Level-D FMS, but it is effective. ‘The Parrot’ is a fuselage section of an old Argentinian Huey, liberated from the Falklands, and mounted 20 feet up on the hangar wall, with a crew door, working winch and room for a WinchOp and instructor. The ‘ground’ is presently the hangar floor, covered by a mat. However, a new ‘floor’ – configurable as either terrain or deck – is being manufactured and supplied by an unlikely source - King Kong Climbing Walls of Threlkeld Quarry, Cumbria.

The HCR classroom set-up. Image credit: Virtails

The latest, and most effective, piece of simulation equipment at SARTU is the Helicopter Crew Reality (HCR) system, an off-the-shelf product manufactured by Virtalis of Sale, Cheshire. The equipment - which can be housed in a medium-sized office – comprises: a physical structure representing the rear door of a Bell 412; an instructor’s Scenario Control Interface; and a joystick control. The WinchOp wears a head-mounted display, fitted with a tracking system, through which he can see a virtual model of the helicopter and his Winchman, and 3D landscape and seascape, with environmental conditions including sea states 1 to 6 and variable levels of rain, fog, lighting and shadow. The ‘aircraft’ can be flown by either the instructor or another pilot, responding to the WinchOp’s commands. The instructor station is a multi-screen point-and-click display, from which the instructor can pre-programme, run, monitor, save and replay scenarios. There are three databases for the visual system, Shawbury, Valley and a generic called ‘Tracy Island’, and they include multiple moving target objects, such as trucks, barrels, casualties, ships and other vessels, life rafts and oil rigs. SAR-specific functions include fixed and pendant hoist controls with a physical cable-cutter switch, and HCR can simulate a range of emergency scenarios which are too dangerous or difficult to simulate in the air, including winch failure, jam and runaway, and engine failure.

HCR is a procedural trainer, rather than a winching simulator, but correct procedures are vital in SAR. The commentary must be absolutely standard; distance is measured in units (each unit equating to two metres), and height in units of five feet. The standard winching height over land is 20 feet, and over sea 50 ft and since, for a given cable extension, errors in height translate directly to the clearance of the Winchman from the surface or other objects, accurate height monitoring is extremely important. HCR has now been in service at SARTU for 10 years, albeit much enhanced during that time, the latest upgrade being within the last year; there is no doubt in the minds of the instructing staff that it improves the performance of the students in the air, and significantly reduces the sortie failure rate. Since the system costs roughly the equivalent of 40 flying hours, this would seem like a good investment.

Rear Crew Training Sortie

In the air, each rear crew training sortie is flown twice, with the students exchanging WinchOp and Winchman roles. This requires four rear crew – two students and two instructors – which means that, in order to maintain Safe Single-Engine (SSE) performance, the Griffin normally carries only the staff pilot; pilot training sorties are effected with instructor and student pilots, and staff WinchOp, Winchman and, when required, ‘survivor’. This means that front and rear crew courses are conducted in parallel, rather than integrated, although occasionally students will fly together. There is a Griffin flight deck simulator at Shawbury, but no composite front and rear crew simulator. The challenge for the pilot is to be able to operate the aircraft safely in a variety of scenarios and situations. The course starts with ‘dry winching’, conducted over land, first on flat terrain and then undulating. Once the basics are mastered, the scenario changes to over-sea, first winching ‘drums’, then ‘wets’, with a real survivor, either in the water or in a dinghy. Lastly ‘decks’ involves the transfer of people and equipment between the helicopter and all parts of a vessel, including the use of a high line, which allows such transfer without the helicopter being in the vessel’s overhead. The phase culminates in ‘opportunity decks’ where the students winch to any vessel they can find, such as ferries, tankers and fishing boats.

The WinchOp's view of "decks" training in the HCR

Next up is cliff winching or ‘situations’, in which the students are presented with scenarios of increasing complexity. The last phase is in the mountains, where the challenges presented in the cliffs phase can be compounded by weather and by wind updraughts and downdraughts, the latter of which – if not anticipated and handled correctly - can exceed the power capability of the aircraft. There are also visual illusions. Making a straight approach to a mountain peak or a sharp ridge may look simple; trust me, it isn’t. I have also experienced the delights of ‘leaning lake’, a seemingly innocuous water feature in a bowl set into the side of a mountain, but a trap for the unwary. The culmination of the course is the Final Handling Test, which can include any or all of the above. Graduates of SARTU will move to 203 Squadron, the Sea King Operational Conversion Unit, before being deployed to a front-line flight.

Currently, the airborne element of the UK’s SAR organisation is tripartite and covers the UK mainland and coastline, and RAF bases overseas. The Royal Navy, with Sea King Mk 5, has units at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall (771 Naval Air Squadron) and Prestwick, near Glasgow (HMS Gannet); however, all RN helicopters, particularly those flights embarked in destroyers and frigates, must necessarily have some SAR capability. There are also four Sikorsky S-92s and 3 AgustaWestland AW-139s, operated by CHC under contract to HM Coastguard, based at Stornoway (Isle of Lewis), Sumburgh (Shetland Islands), Lee-on-Solent (Hampshire) and Portland (Dorset). Lastly, the RAF has flights of 22 Squadron (Sea King HAR3/3A) based at Chivenor (Devon), Valley (Anglesey) and Wattisham (Suffolk), 202 Squadron (Sea King HAR3) at Leconfield (East Yorkshire), Boulmer (Northumberland) and Lossiemouth (Scottish Highlands), 84 Squadron (Griffin HAR2) at Akrotiri in Cyprus, and 1564 Flight (Sea King HAR3) at Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands. Additionally, 203 Squadron, the Sea King Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), and the RAF’s SAR Force HQ, are collocated with 22 Sqn at Valley.


There are major changes ahead for the UK SAR force, prompted equally by the continuing quest for economies in the defence budget and by the imminent retirement of the stalwart Sea King. On 26th March this year, the MoD announced that, with effect from 2015, the UK SAR helicopter force will be run by The Bristow Group, ending 70 years of RAF/RN operations. Under the 10-year contract, 22 helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK. There will be two Sikorsky-92s at each of Stornoway, Sumburgh, Newquay (Cornwall), Caernarfon (North Wales) and Humberside (North Lincolnshire), and two AgustaWestland 189s at Prestwick, Lee-on-Solent, St Athan (South Wales), Manston (Kent) and Inverness (Scottish Highlands).

The debate on civilianisation of the SAR force has been going on for some time and, unsurprisingly, opinions vary widely about how effective the new service will be. Suffice to say that the aircraft will be more modern and just as capable, and it is likely that many of the aircrew will be either ex-RAF/RN SAR, or currently serving aircrew who will be allowed to leave the military in order to take up posts with the contractor. In the meantime, this change does not spell the end of the road for SARTU. On the contrary, there is continuing need for SAR capability in RN vessels at sea and elsewhere; SARTU already instructs the Merlin Operators Lead-In Course (MOLIC), and this training may be expanded to include Lynx and Royal Marine aircrew when, as expected, RAF Merlins are transferred to the RM. There will probably be a ‘darkening of the blue’ in the composition of the staff, to reflect the changing role, and an increased emphasis on operations involving Night Vision Devices, but the SARTU staff confidently expect to be as busy after the transition as they are now. Nevertheless, 2015 will mark the end of an era, and one whose passing will be mourned by many grateful customers such as myself.


More events

Related articles

More Features

More features