Aircraft scrambled for emergency missions at former Doncaster Vulcan base again
Some 60 years ago, it was Vulcan bomber crews that would have been sitting at RAF Finningley waiting to be scrambled in an emergency.
But today, a new team of aircrew are sitting on 24 hour standby to deal with life or death situations from the same base where bomber crews were on alert in the late 1950s and early 1960 during the height of the cold war.
While the Vulcans were on alert to carry bombs, the new generation are awaiting a call from their bosses at HM Maritime and Coastguard Agency to dispatch them on lifesaving missions in the waters around Britain’s coastline.
The agency has revealed it is now operating a crack search and rescue team out of what is now Doncaster Sheffield Airport, using new Beechcraft King Air B200 aircraft that has been specialy modified for the role by Doncaster engineers.
The crews are on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and could be called out at any time to any section of the UK’s vast coastline.
The service is being run from the airport by the Doncaster-based aviation firm 2Excel, a business originally set up by two former RAF pilots, after the company won a contract to operate search planes which will cover the whole of the UK. They will carry out vital seach work, and then guide rescue helicopters to the scene. The helicopters will be based elsewhere.
Arnie Palmer, a former RAF Harrier jump jet pilot, now director of special missions at 2Excel, said the aircraft were at readiness 365 days a year and were on a 45 minute scramble to get airborne to go anywhere in the UK’s EEZ – its Exclusive Economic Zone, made up of the waters where the country has the rights to fishing and minerals.
He said: “We believe this is the shortest scramble time here at Doncaster Finningley since way back in the 60s when the Vulcans used to be based here when Doncaster was an RAF base.”
Among those who will be crewing the new aircraft are Doncaster residents Luke Appleyard and David Walker. Both are on duty for 12 hours shifts at a time.
Pilot Luke, aged 41, from Tickhill, has moved into the role of search and rescue pilot from a background in training other pilots.
He said there was no such thing as a typical day in his new job.
He said: “If we do have a typical day, if there is a call out, we have 45 minutes to be airborne in the daytime, and that means from receiving the call to go out and do a seach and rescue mission to being airborne. So from us receiving that call, we have to be airborne, we have to do all our planning, make sure the aircraft’s fuelled and ready to go, and literally, we need to be wheels up within 45 minutes, to be on scene as quickly as possible.
“We’re there to save lives. It will usually filter back to us if the operation has been successful. If you have helped save a life you hear about it, but then its straight back to the next task.
“You can come in and not get any calls, or you can arrive at work, drop everyone and be scrambled immediately.”
“It is a fantastic machine to fly.”
Sensor operator David, aged 36, from Balby, is a former RAF airman who used to be part of the aircrew on a Nimrod surveillance jet.
He added: “We’ll get the call out in, and we’ll look at the weather from where we’re going, because we never know where we’re going until we’re told. For my role as the sensor operator I’ll start programming the mission system so that we have a good area for where we’re going, and we’re aware of any hazards in the area.”
They have already been scrambed on several occasions, including a search for a ditched small aeroplane off the North Wales coast.
The pair spoke to the Free Press at short notice. Another crew had orginally been due to meet us, but they were scrambled just before we arrived.
They were sent out to take part in a coastguard search and rescue response to a number of incidents off the coast of Kent.
Missions can last up to six hours, and form part of a service that the Maritime and Coastal Agency has taken over from the RAF.
Damien Oliver, commercial director at the Maritime and Coastal Agency, said they had put out a tender 18 months ago to replace their aircraft which detect pollution, looking to broaden the service to other necessary tasks.
He said: “The last 18 months have become more important to have practical support for search and rescue operations.
“It is thanks to Arnie and his team that we now have this service in place.
“We’re very pleased with what is already set up and we think this will be valuable to search and rescue work in future as it continues to evolve, and I think it’s going to be difficult to find anything more capable in this country or anywhere else.”
The new aircraft have some of the most advanced radar systems in the world, housed in a pod under their fuselage.
Experts say that its sensors can detect a person in the water, just from their head bobbing above the surface, from a distance of around 10 miles.
They have already flown 78 operations since November, when they first started the role, and 60 per cent of the time, both aircraft will be available to be scrambled.
Matt Tone, head of surveillance at 2Excel said although Doncaster was not on the coast, it had been picked as the location for the operation because of its central location, its 10,000 foot runway and its 24 hour operation. It means the aircraft can get anywhere in the UK quickly.
It is not the only work that the firm carries out at sea. It also operates Boeing 727 jets which have been adapted to clear oil slicks by spraying detergent to clean them up, which can be deployed anywhere in the world. They are also on permanent standby.