The civilian search and rescue helicopter base at Inverness was officially launched as the RAF and Royal Navy service entered its final few days in the area.
The Coastguard centres at Inverness and Humberside will be the first to take over rescue helicopter duties, including the support of the UK’s volunteer mountain rescue teams.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency will run the operation, progressively taking over duties from the military crews and aircraft that have been a familiar sight to hillgoers in distress for decades. The helicopters for the Coastguard service are being provided by a subsidiary of Texas-based Bristow, which won a 10-year contract in 2013.
The Sikorsky S-92 aircraft based at Inverness are equipped with the latest search and rescue technology including night vision, mission management and increased on-board medical capabilities.
The base was officially opened by Richard Parkes, director of maritime operations at the MCA and was attended by representatives from the RAF 202 Squadron. Also in attendance were other search and rescue organisations with whom Bristow and HM Coastguard have been working, and invited guests who have been instrumental in preparing the new service.
Mr Parkes said: “HM Coastguard has been providing search and rescue helicopter services in northern Scotland for over 30 years. Today I am immensely proud to be welcoming our third civilian base in Scotland, at Inverness.
“I would also like to pay tribute to the outstanding work that RAF Lossiemouth has carried out over many decades, both inland and out to sea. We will ensure that their legacy is continued.”
Samantha Willenbacher, director of UK search and rescue at Bristow Helicopters Ltd, said: “It is an honour to have been chosen to deliver this vital service across the UK. We know this is a service that people rely on in times of great need and we are committed to continuing the great work of the military.
“We have enormous respect for the dedication that our military colleagues have demonstrated in delivering search and rescue over the past 70 years and we have always understood how vital it is that their knowledge and expertise is maintained.
“We have worked closely with them in preparing for the civilian service to go live and have also welcomed many of them into the new civilian SAR force.
“I would like to thank all of those here in Inverness, from RAF Lossiemouth, and around the UK who are supporting us in our preparations for the service going live.”
The company’s aircraft and crews have been at the Inverness base since January 2015 making preparations for the service going live and conducting a raft of training exercises with local search and rescue partners.
The base is led by chief pilot Captain John McIntyre. Capt McIntyre started in aviation flying fixed-wing aircraft from Inverness Airport after being awarded a flying scholarship through the Air Training Corps.
He joined Bristow Helicopters in 1989 and graduated from the company’s cadet training school. During his career he has flown oil and gas and military support missions in Europe, Africa and the Falkland Islands as well as search and rescue operations and crew training in the UK, Holland and Libya.
He said: “Everyone here at the Inverness search and rescue base is very grateful to the local community for making us feel so welcome and we are very much looking forward to delivering a first-class lifesaving service to them.
“Close ties and good working relationships are vital to our success and I am happy to say that we have had nothing but positive support and feedback from our colleagues in the military and other emergency service organisations whilst establishing the base here.”
The Caernarfon and Kent bases will go live on 1 July 2015, followed by St Athan on 1 October. Prestwick and Newquay will become operational on 1 January 2016 and the remaining three bases at Lee-on-Solent, Sumburgh and Stornoway will follow in 2017.
Mountain rescue teams in Scotland have been taking part in familiarisation training with the crews of the new Sikorsky helicopters.
Aberdeen and Braemar teams worked with both pilots and winchmen yesterday during a joint training exercise with the new aircraft.