Orders of the Day — RAF Search and Rescue (Scotland)

– in the House of Commons at 12:45 am on 23rd May 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones]

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside 1:59 am, 23rd May 1988

This Adjournment debate is about the Royal Air Force search and rescue operation in central Scotland, which means that it is really a debate about the search and rescue helicopters at Royal Air Force Leuchars, Fife.

Since June 1955, there has been a permanent 24-hour-a-day search and rescue helicopter standing by at RAF Leuchars. The bright yellow helicopter of B flight of No. 22 Squadron is easily the best-loved, and most highly regarded and respected, of the flying machines that can be seen around the east coast of central and north-east Scotland. The yellow helicopter brings hope and confidence to all who may find themselves in peril in the freezing cold and the cruel North sea, or who may be lost or injured in the mountains of central and northern Scotland.

The skill, courage and professionalism of the helicopter crews have become a legend. The people of my constituency who are subjected daily to the noise of the low fast jets know that from RAF Leuchars they have a lifeline in the search and rescue helicopters. They know that in times of emergency, whether it is injured climbers or walkers, skiers or residents of the remote glens who are in need of hospitalisation, a Leuchars helicopter will be scrambled within 15 minutes. That is important. Response time for rescues in the North sea and in the mountains of Scotland can mean the difference between survival and death.

The helicopters of 22 Squadron RAF Leuchars have made a total of 2,049 rescue flights. In 1987, 104 of the flights were to assist the civil population. Ten were for military purposes. Ninety-five people were rescued and only 10 were found to be dead. Time is of the essence in rescues. Longer flight times will increase the risk and reduce the chances of survival. So far this year the Leuchars helicopters have carried out 68 rescue missions, of which 18 were carried out at night.

Leuchars is the main air defence base of the northern United Kingdom. The pilots and navigators who fly the Phantoms are highly skilled and expensively trained professional aviators. It costs £8 million to train a pilot to the required standard to fly Phantoms. Soon the Phantoms will be replaced by the Tornado F3, whose pilots will be the elite of fighter pilots. I submit that the helicopters will only have to rescue alive one pilot a year from the freezing North sea and from sub-zero mountain temperatures to justify the cost of maintaining the helicopter operation.

I remind the House that in the winter and early spring during the period of the easterly gales a helicopter from Prestwick or from Lossiemouth, flying into the teeth of the gale, would take a long time to reach the east coast. A helicopter from Boulmer would take 47 minutes in still air. We all know that emergencies never occur in still air— quite the opposite. Most emergencies happen when weather conditions are at the margins for operations, so response time is increased.

In March 1988 three crewmen were rescued by a Leuchars helicopter when their motor vessel went aground off Montrose. The water temperature at the time was so low that the rescue services knew that they had to complete the evacuation beforethe men succumbed to the cold. If the helicopter had been unable to lift off the three men, a breeches buoy was the only very risky possible alternative. Fortunately, the RAF Leuchars helicopter flying at night arrived in time and executed the rescue. A helicopter from Prestwick or Boulmer would not have arrived in time.

Ever since the news that Leuchars may lose its search and rescue helicopters became known, the people of Scotland have expressed their concern. Aviators, both service and civil, professional seamen, and fishermen, amateur sailors of all kinds, skiers, mountaineers and hill walkers, as well as police, coastguards, lifeboat men and ambulance men and mountain rescue teams have written, phoned or spoken to their respective Members of Parliament and councillors. There can be few issues that have united so many different groups. All of them are of the view that RAF Leuchars must retain its search and rescue helicopters.

As an aviator, I have flown for a large number of hours, over many years, throughout the Highlands and the east coast of Scotland in the knowledge that the Leuchars search and rescue helicopters were on a 15-minute alert and that if I were unfortunate enough to get into difficulties the yellow helicopter would quickly arrive.

I do not wish in this debate to be seen to be trying to second-guess the highly competent and capable people who have studied the deployment package of military search and rescue helicopters. However, I must draw attention to the experience that was obtained in Korea, where it was discovered that response time could make the difference between recovering highly skilled air crew alive or arriving to find them dead. Water and mountain conditions in Korea can be very like the conditions of Scotland in the winter.

I am also unable to see the logic of having a clutch of Sea King units within 90 nautical miles of each other in the north-east of England when, if Leuchars is to lose its search and rescue helicopters, there will be a gap of 200 nautical miles between Boulmer and Lossiemouth. The Tay estuary is notorious for is treacherous sandbanks. Often surface ships cannot operate or carry out rescues. More than one lifeboat has been lost at the bar of the Tay. In such conditions the only hope of rescue is the helicopter from RAF Leuchars.

I cannot believe that it is wise to have the major northern United Kingdom air defence base within this 200 nautical mile search and rescue helicopter gap. I remind my hon. Friend that the main runway at Leuchars points out towards the Tay estuary, and also that many of the malfunctions of systems or errors of judgment occur during take-off and landing. Ahead of the runway is the treacherous Tay estuary. I leave my hon. Friend to ponder on that.

I wish to thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in this matter. I should also like to thank him for his letters of assurance and for arranging the visit to RAF Leuchars for me and for the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). We were able to visit the helicopter facilities and see the superb new hangar and the crew accommodation, much of which was paid for by NATO, which obviously appreciates the work carried out by B flight crews and helicopters. I should also like to place on record my thanks for the way in which Group Captain Tony Bagnell and the members of 22 Squadron made our visit so interesting and instructive. I should also like to thank them for the traditional RAF hospitality extended to us. I leave it to the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East to say what was interesting about that.

I also thank my hon. Friend for his letter, dated today, which I received today, which assured me that no final decisions have been taken. I do not expect my hon. Friend to give the final decision this evening, but I hope that he will take back to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to his Department the genuine concern that has been so clearly articulated and reported in the Scottish media. In particular, I hope that he will note the many well-informed articles which have appeared in the Dundee Courier and a number of other publications.

I conclude by reminding my hon. Friend of the public relations aspect of the search and rescue helicopters. The RAF could not buy such massively good and positive public relations. If it spent all the money it spends on the helicopters it could not get such superb public relations. The image of the modern Air Force is of low, fast, noisy jets. Many of my constituents have to put up with that week in and week out. They do so because they are reminded by me and others that the yellow, life-saving search and rescue helicopters come from the same Air Force and often from the same airfield. If we lose the search and rescue helicopters at Leuchars and the response time is inevitably increased, the number of complaints will increase and it will be increasingly difficult for my hon. Friend to justify RAF expenditure. In a world of tightening budgets, any savings would be minute compared with the damage that could result from the loss of the good public relations generated by the yellow helicopters of B flight, 22 Squadron at RAF Leuchars.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 2:12 am, 23rd May 1988

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) for allowing me two or three minutes in this important debate to support him and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) in his plea for the retention of the search and rescue capability at RAF Leuchars. It amazes me that it was ever in doubt, and I am sure that the final decision will be made in favour of that outstanding unit, coupled with the other Scottish unit at Lossiemouth with which I have much closer Royal Auxiliary Air Force connection.

During the war, during the many hours of maritime reconnaissance flying, we would have loved to have thought a search and rescue helicopter squadron was not far away. Of course they were not available. We hoped, if we were lucky, to be picked up by a Walrus, which had the hazardous operation of landing in the open sea. Subsequently, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force was still awaiting the arrival of helicopter squadrons for search and rescue.

Now that they have existed for many years, and, as my hon. Friend said, they have given outstanding service to the Royal Air Force, and to Scotland generally in terms of mountain rescue and other hazardous "outward bound" activities that happen in our country, the pilots, navigators and air crew of the squadrons involved deserve the highest praise from the Scottish people and from the United Kingdom.

I cannot believe that it is seriously contemplated that the squadron should move from Leuchars, leaving an enormous gap from Lossiemouth to the English coast. The squadron has a tremendous reputation for fine work, which will stand it in good stead during the deliberations in the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the decision will be to keep the squadron and search and rescue at Leuchars.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence) 2:14 am, 23rd May 1988

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief speech.

I count myself highly privileged to represent the constituency which contains a military air base of such significance as RAF Leuchars. Relations between the military personnel and the community have always been extremely good. A measure of that was the tremendous hospitality which was extended to the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and me on Sunday. It happened to be my birthday. The commanding officer, having discovered the fact, caused it to be celebrated in an entirely appropriate way, but one which did not cause any of us who partook of the hospitality to be at any risk of breaking the law.

The whole community supports the campaign. The district council, the regional council, all political parties and all interests, political or otherwise, are determined to do their utmost to ensure that the search and rescue capability remains at RAF Leuchars.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

In his fight to save this very important facility, is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that he has the support of the people of Angus, East, the fishermen of Arbroath, the lifeboatmen of Montrose, who have contacted me, and those who use the sea or the mountains for leisure or work? I hope that the Minister notices the cross-party and cross-constituency support for this important facility.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I am happy to note that support. It is reminiscent of the support that already exists in my constituency.

I am sure that the Minister will not mind my saying that it is unfortunate that certain information suggesting that a decision had been taken has emerged in the past few weeks. I have the Minister's assurance that no decision has been taken at ministerial level. I am happy to accept that assurance, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that the fact that certain information was freely discussed in the constituency—to the effect that a decision had been taken —was bad for the morale of the crews and their families, and disturbing for the community.

More than 2,000 missions have been flown since the search and rescue facility was established at RAF Leuchars, and more than 2,000 people have been rescued. Some 90 per cent. of those rescued have been civilians. Fishing, which is an important part of the economy of Fife, North-East, relies to a considerable extent on the fact that the Leuchars facility is available. Those who go to sea to fish have confidence in the fact that a proven service is available to them in the unhappy event of their finding themselves in difficulty. There is a tradition of co-operation between the search and rescue facility and the lifeboat at Anstruther and, no doubt, other nearby stations.

As might be expected, I have had many letters from people who have an interest in this matter, but one has touched me more than all the others. It came from a constituent who told me that, but for the Wessex helicopters at RAF Leuchars, he would not be around to write the letter and be part of the campaign to retain the facility. He had suffered a severe medical complaint, and was taken at short notice to Edinburgh where more sophisticated medical facilities were available.

There is little doubt that the contribution made by Leuchars goes far beyond the military requirements and it is one that the civilian population value extremely highly. That service does the RAF great credit and it gives it a profile that all the low flying ever practised could never achieve. Quite simply, that base is regarded as part of the community. I hope that no ministerial decision will be taken that will deprive the community of that most important and significant service.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East 2:21 am, 23rd May 1988

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) for allowing me the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate and to lend my support to the campaign that is being waged by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) to try to stave off any decision to withdraw the sea and air rescue service at Leuchars.

The threat to safety as a result of such withdrawal was brought home to me today when I received a copy of a letter from one of my constituents, Mr. Michael Silvers of West Ferry, Dundee. He wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland on behalf of the Tay pilots to express their concern about the threat to safety that would ensue from such a decision. He said: Should help have to come from Boulmer or some other base there would be too big a delay to help anyone in grave danger, perhaps shipwrecked or immersed in winter temperature seawater. In fact only last Friday all hands were removed from a grounded tug at the river mouth.We also feel that far-away crews could not have enough local knowledge to do rescue work to an acceptable standard. Mr. Silvers and the Tay pilots know what they are talking about. I hope that the Minister will consider their views when he replies.

There is a strong case in Dundee for retaining the services at Leuchars. The Broughty Ferry lifeboat has a long, distinguished and heroic record of saving lives along the north-east coast of Scotland—a record that has been achieved at the cost of great loss of life among the crew of that lifeboat. In the past 30 years that lifeboat has worked in close relationship with the helicopter service at Leuchars. The helicopters and lifeboats often complement each other when they take part in combined operations to save stranded boat crews in peril at sea. In the future I believe that there will be an expanded scope for such operations.

The Royal Tay yacht club at Broughty Ferry in Dundee continues to prosper and that means that there will be a continued demand for the protective cover that is provided by Leuchars. The hon. Member for Tayside, North has already said that such cover is especially needed, given the dangerous nature of the waters in the Tay estuary.

The growing part that is played by tourism in the local economy of Dundee means that more and more holiday-makers will be attracted to the area. They will take part in water sports, hill walking, climbing and skiing and, therefore, there will be an increased need for the sea and air rescue service operation out of Leuchars.

All the evidence points towards a continuing and growing need for the rescue service at Leuchars. The spectrum of local opinion supports the retention of the service. I believe that it would be sheer folly and an act of supreme irresponsibility if the Government withdrew for financial reasons a service that has made a valued and effective contribution to civilian safety in the north-east of Scotland.

If the Minister had been considering such a move I am sure that, having listened to the unanimity of opinion across all political parties and the entire community of the north-east of Scotland in support of the service, he will think again.

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering 2:23 am, 23rd May 1988

This has been a well-attended Adjournment debate and it is an obvious indication of the high regard that the House has for the search and rescue service provided by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It also highlights the specific concern there is about Scotland. I have listened carefully to the debate and I am sure that not only my ministerial colleagues, but officials from the Ministry of Defence will study the record of the proceedings tonight.

I shall respond briefly to some of the points raised in the debate. It is a rather strange and refreshing experience to wind up an Adjournment debate by seeking to answer some of the points raised.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) for his interest in the subject and for his support for the RAF search and rescue services and for mountain rescue services provided by six teams in the United Kingdom. We should not forget the mountain rescue teams which consist of volunteers. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North referred to the new hangar at RAF Leuchars. It is NATO-funded but I should put on record the fact that the excellent hangar and office facilities could well be used for a wide variety of tasks. I am not suggesting that it will be or would be but I felt that I should respond specifically to that point.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) referred to speculation within the RAF about the possible closure of the search and rescue flight —the two Wessex helicopters at RAF Leuchars. For the sake of the record, I repeat the fact that there was speculation about that within the RAF. I regret that it happened. No decisions have yet been made on the deployment of search and rescue helicopters in Scotland and the west coast of England. We have announced the new deployment for the east and south coasts of England. Any decisions for Scotland will be taken by Ministers alone, and no such decision has yet been taken. Therefore, the speculation to which the hon. and learned Member referred is nothing more than that. I regret the inconvenience and alarm that that caused.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East also raised the question of delay as did the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion). If one had search and rescue facilities all round the coast at 15, 20 or 25-mile intervals, the delay in getting any aircraft, whether a Sea King or Wessex, to anyone in difficulties in the water or on land would be minimal. However, unfortunately, we cannot provide that sort of service. There will inevitably be some delay for a helicopter coming from Lossiemouth, Leuchars, Prestwick or wherever to a particular incident. Therefore, because the deployment of the search and rescue helicopters is primarily for military purposes, we try to ensure that we meet, as a minimum, the criteria laid down by the helicopter coverage group, which reports to the Department of Transport. Therefore, in any redeployment of our facilities—this was the case with the east and south coast redeployments we announced to the House several weeks ago—we have to consult comprehensively the Department of Transport. The Department made a decision about augmenting the military cover at Lee-on-Solent.

I remind the House that many RAF stations do not have helicopter search and rescue facilities. Even some of the RAF stations close to the coast do not have such facilities. Several in East Anglia suggest themselves immediately. Ideally, we would have such helicopters at all stations but, obviously, we cannot.

The review that is still in process—Ministers have yet to reach a decision—will take account of the factors that have been mentioned in the debate and the written representations received. I am well aware of the interest of the fisheries industries, the local authorities and recreational interests, including mountain rescue.

I take the point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North and Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) about low flying. It is something about which the public is concerned. The extent to which search and rescue facilities are provided in a particular region or country to a certain extent militates against the criticisms of low flying.

I am also grateful for having been reminded that sea survival in the north of Scotland is perhaps a little less than off the Welsh coast in terms of the impact on military or civilian casualties. The purpose of the fundamental review that is under way is to improve helicopter coverage. We have at our disposal the dedicated personnel of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy—do not let us forget the Royal Navy—and the combination of Sea King and Wessex aircraft. The new Sea Kings arriving for service with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force enable us to augment the service, particularly with night-time cover.

This has been a helpful debate. Everyone has praised search and rescue. When our decisions are announced I hope that the House will agree that coverage of this excellent service will have been enhanced.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Two o'clock.