Yesterday was something of an exciting day for some of the crew members at SARA Beachley lifeboat and Mountain Rescue station, but it was also tinged with a great deal of sadness. We welcomed the Sea King helicopter rescue crew from RAF Chivenor for an afternoon's cross training with the lifeboat and land crew, but as the UK's search and rescue responsibilities are in the latter stages of being privatised, this was probably the last time the iconic yellow helicopter will be seen at Beachley.
Training today consisted of some of our expert coxswains and helmsmen coolly holding SARA lifeboats 1 and 3 stationary against a choppy Severn Estuary whilst the pilot hovered above, winching helicopter crew down to the boats, and lifeboat crew into the Sea King. The level of skill and precision required of both the boat and helicopter crews cannot be underestimated. Both craft are essentially prone to be thrown off course or balance at any moment by wind or wave, which makes the entire manoeuvre extremely hazardous.
Over Dry Land
Once the lifeboats had finished, it was time for the remainder of the crew to take their turn at 'stage 2' helicopter drills. Having studied the theory behind the safe way to approach a helicopter in the buffeting downdraft caused by the rotor blades, emergency procedures and winching, it was now time for a practical exercise. With the helicopter hovering unnervingly steady 15 metres above the ground, we took turns to be winched onboard before lowering back to the ground again. As would be expected, the Sea King crew were incredibly professional and competent in going about their jobs. Although the replacement search and rescue service will still be staffed by expert pilots and crews, it does seem a shame that some of this expertise will be lost forever.
A Brave New World for SAR
The contracts have been signed for the replacement search and rescue helicopters, and a number of Mountain Rescue teams have already begun training with the new helicopters and crews from Bristows. The rollout isn't quite as advanced in this part of the world, so we'll have to wait a little longer to make our acquaintance with the new teams.
A Brave New World for Tally
I couldn't write this post without giving a mention to Tally, Search and Rescue Dog in training. One of her tasks before becoming a certified SARDA dog was to demonstrate that she could cope with helicopter transport, in case of deployment some way off in an emergency. Thanks to her fantastic temperament and the patience and skills of her handler Kathy, Tally passed with flying colours, staying aboard the noisy chopper throughout the drills before being the last to be winched down again!