Under the proposals, helicopters will no longer provide daytime cover to three areas of the Dover Strait, North Sea and Irish Sea. The move was roundly criticised in a report published yesterday by the Commons transport committee, which pointed out that while the three areas are not large, 'they are intensively used by shipping, particularly ferries'.
The Tory-dominated committee added: 'There have been search- and-rescue incidents in all three areas in the last two years, particularly in the Dover Strait.'
RAF helicopters will be withdrawn from stations at Brawdy in Pembrokeshire, Manston in Kent, Coltishall in Suffolk and Leuchars in Fife - making an annual saving of pounds 6.5m. The changes are due to be completed by the 1996. MPs urged the Ministry of Defence to reconsider and to give 'the highest possible priority' to maintaining coverage, in particular flights from Manston and Brawdy.
An agreement between HM Coastguard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Department of Transport in 1986 laid down minimum criteria for the search-and-rescue service. During daylight, helicopters should be capable of reaching ships 40 miles from the coast within one hour.
In April 1990, the B & I ferry Norrona was 25 miles west of Milford Haven, west Wales, with 219 passengers and 78 crew on board when she caught fire. A Sea King from Brawdy was scrambled and airlifted fire-fighters aboard within 58 minutes. The fire was put out and the ferry returned to dock.
Under the cuts, the Brawdy helicopters would be transferred to Chivenor, in the West Country, making a saving of pounds 220,000. The committee heard evidence from an exercise last year, called Operation Paper Tiger, when experts estimated a helicopter from Chivenor would take 70 minutes to reach the same spot. By then, the fire would have reached 700C with total evacuation being the only option.
A saving of pounds 220,000, the committee said, was not 'a good enough reason for the Sea King flight to move to Chivenor'. Operation Paper Tiger also established that the only fire crew capable of tackling a fire on a Pembroke- Fishguard ferry was based in South Wales.
Jeremy Hanley, the defence minister, gave an assurance last year that the operation would take no longer if the helicopter came from Chivenor. 'Given the significant extra distance a helicopter from Chivenor would have to travel, the committee is not convinced that the Government can have that assurance,' the report said.
Nick Ainger, MP for Pembroke, who has been leading a fight to keep the Sea Kings at Brawdy, claimed the campaign 'has been 100 per cent vindicated'.
For 18 months, 'we have been telling the MoD and DoT that their decision is reckless and dangerous. Now, the committee, which has a Conservative majority . . . has taken an entirely independent, objective view of this issue and come down completely on our side.'
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