Future of Air Search teams to be decided

Tuesday, 9 May, 2006

THE Government will make an announcement today about the future of search and rescue helicopter services - including those in Suffolk - amid concerns that a privatisation could lead to job cuts and RAF base closures.

A 25-year contract likely to be worth around £1 billion is expected to be awarded to a private company to operate the search and rescue (SAR) services.

They are currently operated from 12 bases around the UK by helicopters run by the RAF, Royal Navy and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). They include Wattisham Airfield, near Needham Market.

Competing for the contract is Canadian-based CHC Helicopters which is already taking over, from 2007-12, a contract to operate MCA's SAR operations at Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands, Stornaway on the Western Isles, Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire and Portland in Dorset.

With the military Sea King helicopters due for replacement, the Government is keen to bring what has been called "helicopter harmonisation' to SAR services.

Other RAF SAR centres are at Leconfield in Yorkshire, Boulmer in Northumberland, Lossiemouth in Morayshire, Chivenor in Devon and Valley in Anglesey.

The Royal Navy has SAR bases at Prestwick in Scotland and Culdrose in Cornwall.

MPs have voiced fears that some bases might shut and that some crews could be replaced.

Conservative MP David Ruffley, whose Bury St Edmunds constituency includes Wattisham, has spoken out in opposition of privatising such crucial services.

The RAF's B Flight 22 Squadron, which employs about 60 staff, has been based at Wattisham for about 12 years and has flown hundreds of rescue missions, saving countless lives. It consists of about 20-air crew, 40 engineers, and two Sea King helicopters.

No-one at Wattisham yesterday felt able to comment on the potential changes, ahead of the Government's announcement.