Search and Rescue History

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Royal Navy Air-Sea Search and Rescue (SAR)

Royal Navy Second World War SAR duties at Lee were carried out by Sea Otters of the "Search and Rescue Flight" of 781 Communications squadron. The squadron continued these duties immediately post war, and also provided communications aircraft for VIPs, and operated an "Instrument Examining Flight" and "Bad Weather Flying Training Flight" as wel as day and night training of all naval pilots in flying in adverse weather conditions. 781 squadron provided a Search and Rescue commitment for the Fleet Air Arm up till October 1952 when the squadron's Sea Otters were withdrawn.

Early Royal Navy Dragonfly

Post war the helicopter was increasingly replacing the role of the fixed wing aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm. A former Lee-on-Solent squadron, 771 squadron, received in February 1945 the Hoverfly, making it the first naval air squadron to operate helicopters. It was mainly based at Portland, although the fixed-wing element of the squadron moved to Lee-on-Solent in March 1947, however 771 squadron assumed a dedicated SAR role only with the introduction of the Whirlwind HAR 3 in the 1960s. (link to 771 squadron today at RNAS Culdrose)

Whirlwind helicopter

Further helicopter developments at Daedalus followed in November 1955 by 705 squadron being restyled as a Helicopter Training Squadron at Lee, where it remained until moving to Culdrose in 1958.

Wessex HU5 XS496 RN at Lee on Solent 23 February 1978

However, the Air Station had to wait another decade before it could eventually see its first helicopters for SAR duties. The resident 781  "Search and Rescue Flight" Communications squadron was not to see its first Whirlwind HAR.1 for SAR duties until 1959,  which were eventually replaced by Wessex HU.5s in June 1969.

For the next dozen years, 781 squadron maintained its SAR work with its Wessex HU.5s until the 1980s, only finally being disbanded on 31 March 1981 after 41 years residing at Lee-on-Solent.

Wessex HAS 1 helicopters lined up at Lee on Solent, July, 1983

The Fleet Air Arm Search and Rescue role was taken up by Wessex HU.5 of 772 squadron in February 1983 stationed at Lee on Solent until March 1988, when its role was finally handed over to a civilian SAR Flight after almost 50 years of continuous air sea rescue duties from Lee-on-Solent.

SAR activities were then briefly undertaken by the RAF, with a detachment of 202 RAF squadron Sea King HAR3 being stationed at Lee-on-Solent from April till May 1988.

Sea King HAR3 in 202 Squadron markings when the RAF briefly returned to Lee in 1988

Located at the former Naval Fleet Air Arm base H.M.S. Daedalus, H.M. Coastguard took over the operation of the Search and Rescue Service from the Royal Navy in May 1988.

Coastguard SAR 61 bases are located at Stornaway, Sumburgh, Lee-on-Solent and Portland. The first base to come on line was Sumburgh in 1983 and was followed by Stornaway, 1987, Lee-on Solent, 1988, and finally, Portland in 1995.

The commercial version of the Sikorsky Sea King (S61N) is adapted for Search and Rescue Operations, being operated by Bristows Helicopters on behalf of H.M. Coastguard.

With the closure of the Royal Navy establishment the SAR duties continue in the Solent, an area which has been identified as one of the UK's busiest coastal areas and deserves the highest level of SAR cover. In December 1996 a Ministerial decision was made to allow the Coastguard to continue its operations at Daedalus, therefore continuing the unbroken tradition of air SAR duties since the early 1940s.

Today the Lee airfield is home to a number of agencies, including the Hampshire Police Air Support Unit, and adjoining it separately fenced off is the HM Coastguard Solent Maritime Rescue Control Centre and the SAR Bristows helicopter. The search and rescue facility being operated by Bristows Helicopters on behalf of HM Coastguard.

Bristows SAR helicopter (Jean Laws)

Bristows Search and Rescue (ref : Bristow Base: Coastguard SAR, UK).

According to official records, the Coastguard Sikorsky S61N search-and-rescue helicopter currently based at Lee-on-Solent undertook 188 sorties and rescued 106 people during 1991.

The Bristows Sikorsky S61N helicopter is the state of the art platform for modern civilian Air Sea Rescue operations and has many advanced features that would normally only be found in the military enviroment. The Bristows helicopter contracted to provide the service from Lee-on-Solent has an all-weather and night-time capability which under the current arrangements requires it to be available for operations as far west as Brixham during the hours of darkness.

The base employs a total of 24 people, 7 Pilots, 7 Engineers, 7 Winchmen/Operators, and 3 Administration Staff. Each member of the team has more than 19 years experience in their field of expertise and many are recruited from the former Naval Air Station or other areas of the Armed Forces. They have regular training sessions and are constantly improving their skills to meet the needs of the operation. Like many other emergency services, the crew are all actively involved in fund raising activities throughout the year.

This shot is of G-BIMU at Lee-on-Solent

In the photograph of the Helicopter G-BIMU, the building behind the helicopter houses the line office, crew room, stores, workshops etc. Both helicopter and crew are required to remain at 15 minutes notice to proceed between 0800 - 2100 and at 45 minutes overnight.
Currently based at Lee-on-Solent, Bristows Lee Helicopter G-BDIJ can often be seen, during the summer months, acting like a mother hen to the hundreds of yachts and other small craft which crowd the Solent. The SAR operations have a close link with the local community and each base has endless amounts of press articles cut from local newspapers telling the story of numerous incidents in which their helicopter was involved.

From 1988, commercial Search and Rescue Helicopters took over the former role played by the
Lee on Solent Fleet Air Arm aircraft.

The helicopter G-BDIJ (India Juliet) as featured in the Meridian televsion program of the same name.

DOWNLOAD a Multimedia - clip of the Bristows Helicopter from Meridian TV

Also see the following reference:

  • The Typical Search and Rescue Mission (not online September 2001)
  • What does it take to make an Air Crew?

    Bristows SAR activities - 10 Downing Street 

    See the 10 Downing Street web site for an interview with one of the Lee on Solent SAR helicopter crew members

    Extracts from the 10 Downing Street web site (September 2001)

    Choppers to the Rescue... In the English Channel 
    Search and Rescue involving the Indian Navy

    On 27th July 1961,  A speed boat, carrying three persons crossing the English Channel capsized and sank , leaving the three crew struggling for survival in the water. On receiving the distress message, the RNAS Lee on Solent Control Tower issued a general rescue call, which was picked up Two Allouttes in the area, belonging to the INS Vikrant. Lt Cdr Wadhwan and Lt Cdr Menon were flying a training mission in Allouttes leased from the French, when they proceeded for rescue.

    As only Wadhwan's chopper was fitted with a rescue winch, Wadhwan and his Aircrewman on board, TAG Vijayan operated the winch and rescued all the three. This incident bought wide publicity in the British Papers for the Indian Navy. The Allouttes were returned to the French at the end of the training programme.

    Extracts from the Indian Air Force unofficial history web site - Maintained By Jagan Mohan (2001)