Page last updated at 16:45 GMT, Saturday, 7 November 2009

Overnight RAF rescues suspended

Mona McAlinden
BBC Scotland news website

Sea King helicopter
The MoD is backtracking on a cut in SAR helicopter crews

Search and rescue (SAR) services at RAF Lossiemouth have been suspended during the night, it has emerged.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed the service had only been operating for 12 hours a day since 18 October and would not resume fully until 30 November.

It said temporary cuts were needed at the Moray base to ensure current daytime coverage levels are maintained.

The MoD cut crews in 2008 but has been trying to revert to previous levels because of "unmanageable risk".

A cut in SAR helicopter crews from 28 to 24 was announced last year.

But the MoD said in a statement: "It subsequently became clear that the implementation of this would present an unmanageable risk and as soon as this was identified, ministers decided to revert to 28 crews.

I appreciate these changes have caused some concern but our search and rescue helicopter crews do a fantastic job
Bill Rammell
Armed Forces Minister

"We aim for this to be completed by early summer 2010.

"Until then, some planned night-time base closures will be necessary in order to ensure current levels of daytime coverage are maintained and to safeguard crew safety and preserve night-time response times."

RAF Lossiemouth is one of five bases where services have been suspended temporarily, with cover provided from neighbouring stations.

An MoD spokesman said there are no plans to close the Lossiemouth service again but that may change.

Aviation writer Jim Ferguson said: "I have been involved with many aspects of the UK military search and rescue operation for well over 30 years and therefore cannot believe that it could have been subject to a cost-cutting exercise.

"That it has now failed is apparently now embarrassingly evident within Whitehall, but the disruption caused by this ill-thought process will inevitably last for some time."

'Finely-balanced'

He said Britain has one of the world's finest SAR organisations but the suspensions had shown "how finely-balanced they are in financial terms".

"More importantly, it has to be hoped that the experience will prevent budget managers from trying anything like it again in the future," he added.

However, Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell said: "It is standard practice that, when a search and rescue station is not operating - which can happen for various reasons - the adjacent stations are able to respond.

"This process does, and will continue to, ensure that search and rescue cover is maintained throughout the UK 24 hours a day.

"I appreciate these changes have caused some concern but our search and rescue helicopter crews do a fantastic job and that will not change because of these temporary closures."

A spokeswoman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: "The UK search and rescue helicopter service is designed to offer flexible cover, so that if one SAR helicopter base in unavailable neighbouring bases can take over."



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