The History of the United Kingdom's Air-Sea Rescue Services

The sight of a yellow helicopter set against an overcast sky has long been a godsend to generations of stranded airmen, sailors, and boaters who, by bad luck or circumstances, have found themselves adrift along the coasts of Britain during a storm. What few people realize, however, is that the role of air-sea rescue is carried out by many branches of Her Majesty's military service and that the special missions they provide for the public and their fellow comrades have been accomplished with a wide range of vehicles and technologies over the century that has passed since the invention of flight.

More to protect your pocket than your person - try here (sorry, UK only) for direct line insurance policies, temp car insurance or even just weekly car insurance. Need your home insured? Click here for quotes for house insurance

Piloting a Curtiss seaplane, Hugh Robinson executed the first air-sea rescue in 1911. Retrieving a stranded airman from the bitter waters of Lake Michigan, Robinson's feat was soon used as the model for at-sea rescues by navies across the world. Early seaplanes, however, lacked the range and reliability to conduct true 'blue water' missions. It was not until the introduction of long-range seaplanes like the PBY Catalina in the years prior to World War 2 that stranded airman and sailors could hope for recovery when lost deep at sea. Such seaplanes, however, were not always up to the task of rescuing downed bomber crews from the choppy, and often hostile, waters of the North Sea during the ensuing war. To this end several Avro Lancaster bombers were modified to carry airborne lifeboats that, upon discovery of a downed allied crew, could be dropped to the sea by way of parachute. When these Mark I lifeboats proved unfit for the rough weather of the North Sea and English Channel a second, sturdier boat called the A-1 was developed in America for use aboard American-built B-17s.

Both boats and seaplanes had numerous disadvantages, though, chief among them the inability to either go directly to downed crewmen or rapidly transport those they had recovered to medical facilities. For this reason both Britain and the United States began to adopt helicopter technology during the later half of the war. Royal Navy and Air Force aviators were transferred to Brooklyn, NY, in 1942 to begin training with the new Sikorsky R-4 Hoverflies, eventually being organized into 705 Naval Air Squadron. The helicopter's ability to hover in one spot, transit directly from a rescue site to emergency facilities, and operate off of any large ship quickly pushed seaplanes out of all rescue duties other than those requiring very long range and, in 1953, the RAF's 275 Squadron, operating out of Linton-on-Ouse, became the first air-sea rescue unit to use helicopters exclusively. The distinctive bright yellow paint scheme applied to their original Bristol Sycamores remains in use to this day.

Currently Her Majesty's Coastguard coordinates all maritime rescue, though coordination for airborne rescue is conducted by the RAF, with both its own units and those of the Royal Navy at its command. Control of such missions is carried out from the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre, which is headquartered at the RAF's base at Kinross, Scotland.

mountain rescue

Copyright The Friends Of ASSYNT 2010