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Search and Rescue

Our Search and Rescue Force

The RAF has its own Search and Rescue Force (SARF), which is ready to respond 24 hours a day. It covers the whole of the UK – and beyond.


Their primary role is to recover RAF personnel, but in peacetime, the majority of callouts are to civilian incidents. In an average year, the Search and Rescue Force can expect to respond to more than a thousand callouts. Like all emergency services, the type of incident varies tremendously. It could be anything from rescuing a group of lost hill walkers to large-scale operations such as the floods at Boscastle, Cornwall, in 2004; each day brings a new challenge. With every callout, teams have to be quick-thinking and resourceful because lives can depend on it.

We have six Search and Rescue teams in the UK. These work alongside four civilian coastguard and two Royal Navy teams to form a unified national Search and Rescue service. We all work together to ensure that no area in the UK is more than one hour’s flight away in daylight. At night we can get to anywhere in the country in less than one-and-a-half hours.

Search and Rescue overseas

Our teams also work internationally: we operate in Cyprus and the Falkland Islands. These teams, like their colleagues at home, can respond to man-made crises and natural disasters all over the world.

Boscastle floods in Cornwall (August 2004)

RAF Search and Rescue crews were first on the scene. The weather was terrible and visibility poor. Our Sea King helicopters played a key role in ensuring that everyone threatened by the rising floodwaters was rescued. Among them, a 15-month baby girl and her parents, trapped in their car.

This is just one true story of our courageous and life-saving Search and Rescue operations.

A true story of SAR overseas – Mozambique flooding

In March 2000 Mozambique suffered devastating floods due to heavy rainfall across southern Africa. Helicopters were the only way to rescue people trapped by the floods, and distribute aid. Four Puma helicopters from 33 Squadron RAF Benson joined the global relief effort. During Operation Barwood, which lasted from 5 to 19 March, the Pumas flew a gruelling 350 hours, airlifted 563 people to safety and distributed 425 tonnes of vital supplies.

Search and Rescue at sea

Our teams are well equipped to deal with Search and Rescue operations. At sea, they can use Nimrods that have been specially adapted for long-distance work and sea surveillance. Sea King helicopters are also at their disposal. These have search radar and thermal imaging for spotting people in the dark.

In 2005, the Multi-Sensor System (MSS) was introduced. We can use this technology to see a person from half a mile away, even when flying at 9,000 m (30,000 ft).

The highly trained crews themselves provide 24-hour emergency cover. Our winchmen, for example, are also fully qualified paramedics. Just as vital as the aircrews are our skilled engineers, who remain on call 24/7 to ensure that vital equipment and aircraft are up to the challenge.

A true story of rescue at sea – Piper Alpha

Piper Alpha was the largest oil rig in the North Sea. In July 1988, there was an enormous explosion and fire on the rig. The SAR operation that took place was the largest the RAF had ever undertaken. Tragically 167 men on the rig died, but the fact that 62 survived was thanks to the bravery, training and expertise of the rescue teams.

Mountain rescue

The four RAF Mountain Rescue Teams are normally based at RAF Kinloss, near Inverness; Leuchars, near St Andrews; Leeming, in Yorkshire; and RAF Valley in North Wales. Each team has seven full-time personnel and up to 30 RAF volunteers. The RAF volunteers get trained in their spare time.

All team members have excellent fitness, so they can search large areas of land without getting tired. Together, the RAF personnel and RAF volunteers make a highly trained, skilled and well-equipped team.

How do you become part of an SAR team?

We don’t recruit directly into Search and Rescue – we call on the most suitable staff from other areas of the RAF. There is a Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) at RAF Valley in North Wales where all our aircrews undertake three weeks of SAR training. That’s because any them may be called upon to help with an SAR operation.

Some people choose to specialise in this area. For instance, helicopter Pilots wishing to become SAR Pilots can apply to join an advanced SAR course; they have to pass a selection first.

SARTU courses are geared to testing physical and mental strength. Hours are long and conditions extreme, so those who do get through can be confident they have the commitment and bravery the job demands. It’s then that they can live up to the motto of SARTU – ‘that lives may be saved’.

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