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The history of UK's busiest Search and Rescue base


Jun 2, 2022
United Kingdom
United Kingdom

The Portland Coastguard Helicopter was a search and rescue helicopter, based at RNAS Portland (HMS Osprey), later known as Osprey Quay. Search and Rescue (SAR) operations were originally handled by the Royal Navy, until the service was transferred to the British civil helicopter operation Bristow Helicopters in 1995. In 2007, Canadian helicopter operator CHC Helicopter(CHC Scotia) became the new service provider.

The SAR service at Portland closed in 2017 and the base is now operated by Heli Operations, mainly as an SAR aircrew facility.

Portland's SAR base provided a 12-hour (9am to 9pm), 365-day,all-weather service. The base's operational area ranged from Hengistbury Head, Hampshire, in the east, to Start Point, Devon, in the west - a distance of 100 miles. The area extended out to the Mid-Point of the English Channel, covering an area of 4000 square miles. Statistics from 2005 recorded Portland's base as having 14 staff; made up of five pilots, five winchmen and four engineers.

Since its inception, the SAR service at Portland was involved in many emergencies and incidents. It played an active part in the rescue of local residents during the Boscastle flood of 2004. In 1999, Portland was announced as the second busiest SAR service in the UK, despite its 12-hour-a-day operation. Later in the 2010's, it was revealed that Portland's service operated in the busiest area, at 25% for all SAR emergencies handled by HM Coastguard in the UK.


Establishment of coastguard SAR operations at Portland


Royal Navy Air Station Portland was commissioned at Portland in 1959, primarily for the research and development of helicopters in anti-submarine warfare. Aside from its military operations, a Search and Rescue(SAR) service was also established. Initially, 737 Squadron handled the SAR commitments, until 771 Squadron took over the role in 1961. They were succeeded by 829 Squadron in 1964, and in turn, by Squadron 772 from 1974 to 1995. With the upcoming relocation of Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) to Devonport and closure of HMNB(Her Majesty's Naval Base) Portland in 1995-1996, 772 Squadron was to be disbanded. As this resulted in the loss of Portland's SAR provider, which was considered essential for the area, the government began talks with HM Coastguard.

During 1995, the decision was made to place a coastguard helicopter at Portland on a temporary basis, while the government considered the future requirements of the UK's SAR service. Bristow Helicopters were given the contract to provide Portland's SAR service on behalf of the coastguard. Portland was the fourth SAR base in the UK to be provided by HM Coastguard and operated by Bristow; the other three being located at Lee-on-the-Solent, Sumburgh and Stornoway.

Portland's SAR service commenced on 30th September 1995 with the two Sikorsky S61-N helicopters "Whisky Bravo" and "Hotel Lima". The base occupied RNAS Portland's No.1 hangar, which had been one of the navy's original constructions for the air station during 1950's. Facilities for the staff were housed in four Portacabins and included an operations room, kitchen, rest room, storage space and office space for the senior pilot and chief engineer. Portland's temporary SAR service was extended for another eight months in March 1996.

By the end of the year, the government decided to continue the UK's existing SAR arrangements and Portland's temporary contract was replaced by a five year one.

Between 1995 and 1999, RNAS Portland would continue to occasionally assist the SAR helicopter in maritime searches. In 1999, Portland's SAR service was announced the second busiest in the UK, having been involved in 276 call-outs that year. Later in May 2000, "Hotel Lima" carried out the 1000th mission of the base since its establishment in 1995.

Disagreements over new hangar and uncertainty of base's future:

RNAS Portland was closed in March 1999 and the site, renamed Osprey Quay, was sold by the Ministry of Defence to the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) in 2000. As part of the development plans for the site, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) entered discussions with SWRDA over future facilities for the SAR service based there. The base's existing hangar was in need for replacement. In March 2001, the SWRDA submitted a planning application for the development of Osprey Quay, including the relocation of the SAR base. The plans were approved in January 2002.

However, in mid-2002, talks between the two parties broke down as concerns were raised by MCA over the flood risk at the base's proposed new location. The SWRDA had selected the existing runway area to be Osprey Quay's man-made flood plain area, which was to be enclosed with the construction of a bund wall. The flood plain was necessary to allow the rest of Osprey Quay to be commercially developed. MCA raised concerns of flooding and the need for special mitigation measures. Of particular concern was the construction costs involved. It was estimated that building a new hangar at the helicopter's existing site would cost around £1.5 million, while building it in the flood plain area would result in higher costs of £2.5-£3.5 million.

Due to the ongoing issue, MCA suggested relocating Portland's SAR service to the Lee-on-the-Solent base. It was believed that the move would be more cost effective than constructing a new hangar at Portland. However, MCA's relocation suggestion was met with local protest and a "Save Our Lifesavers" campaign was launched. The campaign generated a petition of over 25,000 signatures, protest marches and a harbour blockade in Weymouth. In October 2002, South Dorset MP Jim Knight presented the petition to David Jamieson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Transport, during a meeting with him and Maurice Storey, the MCA's chief executive. In November, Knight was successful in having a parliamentary debate authorised over the helicopter's future. By this time, an operational risk analysis had been undertaken to assess the impact of the potential relocation, which concluded that national criteria for SAR services would still be met.

Consultation continued into the following year, until February 2004, when David Jamieson announced that Portland's helicopter service would remain after discussions between the MCA, SWRDA and the government had found a solution. The agreement included the SWDRA covering the costs of preparing the land for the new hangar and installing a steel opening in the bund wall to allow the helicopter access from the hangar to the runway, which was to be realigned.

Construction of new helicopter hangar
Plans for the new hangar and realignment of the runway were revealed in May 2003, and planning permission was approved in December. The design of the new hangar was undertaken by Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd and its construction was completed in 2004. The 3050 square meter hangar, described by the MCA as a "white, curved structure", was build to accommodate two helicopters and also provided space for offices, workshops, storerooms and other support facilities. In order to resolve the flood plain issues of previous concern, extensive bunding work was undertaken to minimise the flood risk. The hangar cost £3.5 million to build and was one of the earliest new developments at Osprey Quay.

Meanwhile, the No 1 hangar originally used by the coastguard was demolished. The new hangar was opened by Shipping Minister David Jamieson on 31 March 2005.

In July 2005, on National Maritime Day, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall visited Portland to present HM Coastguard a Royal Colour during a private ceremony, held at the new hangar. During the event, a parade of sixty local coastguards were inspected by the prince, along with Portland's helicopter crew. A number of senior coastguard figures also attended the ceremony, including Lieutenant Colonel P H Sampson of the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, RAF Force Commander and Group Captain J A Goodbourn and RNLI Operations Director Mike Vlasto. Later that month, "Whisky Bravo" recoded its 1000th person to be winched on board the helicopter.

Whisky Bravo taking flight from the base in July 2003
CHC Helicopter took over operations of all four MCA SAR bases, including Portland's, in July 2007. As part of the five year contract, Portland's Sikorsky S61-N helicopter was replaced with an Augusta Bell AB139 in April the following year. In December 2009, Portland's helicopter was recoded in taking part in its 3,000th mission since its establishment in 1995.

Announcement of base's closure and response
Fears over the base's future re-emerged in February 2011 following the collapse of a deal with Soteria Consortium, who had been announced a year before as the next operator of the four HM Coastguard SAR bases. CHC Helicopter would remain as Portland's operator. Later in November that year, Transport Secretary Justine Greening announced that Portland's base would be one of two in the UK to close in 2017 as part of government plans to rationalise and improve SAR services. The news followed the announcement back in December 2010 to close then coastguard coordination centres, including Portland's centre in Weymouth.

The decision to axe Portland's SAR service was met with protest from local residents, local maritime organisations and South Dorest MP Richard Drax. Soon after, a new campaign "Save Our Helicopter", was launched. Maria Eagle, the Shadow Secretary for Transport, visited the base in March 2012 and took part in campaigning by gathering local signatures. Meanwhile, Dr Ian Mew created an online petition, which closed in August 2012 with 18,000 signatures. The petition was replaced that moth with another set-up by Drax. By the end of July 2013, Drax's online petition had gained 17,974 signatures, but suffered from a technical glitch that prevented supporters from outside of Dorset from signing it.

Meanwhile, a written petition had gained approximately 87,000 signatures by May 2013. It gained 108,500 signatures in total and was handed in to parliament in February 2014. However, the government's decision to close the base did not change. In 2015, CHC helicopter announced that their three AW139s, based at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent, had collectively completed over 3,300 missions and rescued over 2,000 people since the beginning of their contract in 2007. Between April 2015 an March 2017, Portland's helicopter was involved in 241 missions.

Closure of SAR base:
In October 2016, the formal process for the disposal of Portland's SAR base was triggered by the owners, the Homes & Communities Agency. In November, it was announced that Heli Operations, who currently provide the SAR aircrew and supporting services at Portland, had won the bd for the site. At the time, the company had been working with Drax on a business plan for future use of the base. The company revealed its intention to retain landing and refuelling facilities for use of coastguard helicopters from other SAR bases covering the south coast, while also potentially running SAR aircrew training services there.

Portland helicopter's final day of operation was 30th June 2017. To mark the event, the helicopter took part in its last training exercise at Weymouth Bay with the lifeboat of Weymouth RNLI. On 1 July, a ceremony was held in the hangar to honour the crew. Later in the day, a public ceremony saw the unveiling of a commemorative stone by Angus Campbell (Lord - Lieutenant of Dorset). The stone lists the 48 crew members and staff of the helicopter since 1995, and reads: "Dedicated to the staff and crews of the Portland Search and Rescue Helicopter in appreciation of their outstanding service. Installed on behalf of the people of Portland"



Heli Operations took over the former SAR base on 1 July and an announcement soon followed that the base would become a training and development centre, providing SAR training to aircrew of the German Navy. Two Sea King MK5 helicopters, formerly of the Royal Navy's 771 Naval Air Squadron, were brought back into service following their retirement in 2016.

One of two Sea King MK5 helicopters operated by Heli Operations to for SAR training.

After undergoing a period of maintenance at RNAS Culdrose, the helicopters were leased by the Ministry of Defence to Heli Operations for use at Portland, as planned, the base retained landing and refuelling facilities for SAR helicopters operating in the region.

Operational Helicopters:

Hotel Lima - G-BBHL - Sikorsky S-61N Mk II September 1995 -2001 (Transferred to MCA Stornoway as their back-up helicopter)

Whisky Bravo - G-BPWB - Sikorsky S61N Mk II October 1995-2007 (leased by CHC and transferred in 2007 to Lee-on-the-Solent for use as part of the CHC SAR transition crew)

Victor Alpha - G-BBVA - Sikorsky SK61N Mk II 2001-April 2008 (used periodically during these years as a backup helicopter)

Hotel Mike - G-BBHM - Sikorsky SK61N Mk II 2002-July 2002 (Back up for Whisky Bravo, later destroyed by a fire after an emergency landing)

India Juliet - G-BDIJ - Sikorsky SK61 Mk II 2007-April 2008 (leased by CHC to serve as Portland Helicopter until arrival of Augusta)

India Juliet - G-CGIJ - Augusta Westland AW139 - April 2008-June 2017(Based at Lee-on-the-Solent but first Augusta to be based at Portland until the arrival of C-CGWB, had been used for missions to Portland ever since).

Whisky Bravo - C-CGWB - Augusta Westland AW139 - April 2008-June 2017 (Primary Augusta helicopter for Portland)

Romeo Delta - G-SARD - Augusta Westland A139 - April 2008-June 2017 (based at Lee-on-the-Solent, main back-up helicopter used at Portland whenever Whisky Bravo was off for service).


1. Aeroflight- Portland Facility H.M Coastguard
2. BBC News - Axed Portland Coastguard Helicopter memorial stone unveiled
3. BBC News - Portland helicopter base will remain open - November 2016
4. BBC News - Thousands sign Portland Coastguard helicopter base petition - February 2014
5. Behance - Government Project: MCA Helicopter Hangar Unit - Stefan Schatten
6. Buzz(Journalism & News from Bournemouth University) - New found optimism for Portland Coastguard helicopter campaigners - Charlotte Foot, Rosanna Cole - May 2013
7. Dorset for You - W&PBC - Planning Application Details 01/00118/OUT (29 January 2002)
8. Dorset for You - W&PBC - Planning Application Details 03/00341/GOV (5 December 2003)
9. Hansard 1803-2005 - Parliamentary debate
10. HMS Osprey: End of an Era - RNAS Portland 1959-1999- Iain Ross (Editor) - Resort Marketing & Publishing Ltd - 1998- Page 78
11. Maritime and Coastguard Agency - numerous articles from the CMA press releases achieves from 1998 to 2005
12. Petitions - UK Government and Parliament - Save the Portland Coastguard Helicopter - 2013
13. Prezi - Interactive timeline: Key events in the Portland Coastguard campaign - Rosanna Cole
14. Shepard Media - UK Coastguard helicopter base at Portland has carried out its 3,000th mission - December 2009


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Nov 17, 2017
United Kingdom
United Kingdom
Blimey, that's a pretty decent essay. Thank you for sharing this excellent research, not that my thanks counts for much but either way... It was always a shame that SAR was outsourced to Bristow, They are going to be replaced by 2Excel:


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