RAF officers congratulated Morpeth Rotary Club on the wonderful weather it had brought when 12 of its members paid a visit to Boulmer.
Their key message was: “We are happy for part of 202 Squadron with two helicopters to be lodged with us, but that is not our main reason for being here. We will have a strong and major presence whatever the future holds for Search and Rescue.”
The squadron also has two helicopters based at each of Beverley and Lossiemouth and 202 Squadron carries out a similar role.
Search and Rescue is to be privatised from March 2015, when new helicopters and new locations are likely to be necessary. The expected changes are unsettling for the crews and it is unclear what the local school will do as its badge is a yellow helicopter.
The Rotary members were welcomed to the main site by Wing Commander Martin Perry, Officer Commanding Support Wing. This covers services including medical, dental, chefs, padre, accounts, supplies, drivers, security, 189 RAF houses, and a community learning centre, NAAFI Spar shop, coffee shop, gym and sports hall. Briefing on operations was by Squadron Leader Jules Tilley.
The main business of the station is as the RAF Air Surveillance and Control Service HQ, a NATO Control and Reporting Centre, and a School of Aerospace and Battle Management. A total of 700 students are trained there each year.
Control covers North Atlantic airspace to Iceland and off the coast of Nova Scotia across to Denmark, and Norway, excluding Ireland and Sweden as they are not in NATO. It can watch Russian planes coming over the North Cape and arrange interception, although there are thousands of aircraft on the radar at any one time.
It defends UK airspace generally with surveillance for any terrorist threat. Any airliner that does not respond to communications and/or deviates from a flight plan can be challenged.
They have air control facilities that can be taken overseas and have had units in Afghanistan, Iraq, Italy (for Libya) and the Falklands. Air-to-air refuelling can be controlled from there.
There are around 600 military and 400 civilian staff across the two sites at Boulmer with a total of 1,400 UK wide. The Boulmer bunker was not visited as it was being fully used for an exercise.
Lastly, there was a chance to scramble inside a Sea King rescue helicopter with a briefing from A Flight Commander Squadron Leader Fray Grayling. Both helicopters had been flying with three others for five hours on the day before, evacuating 250 staff from two oil rigs.
Each has a crew of four and a range of around 500 miles. In difficult conditions, the winchman by the door has the best view of how to manoeuvre. The helicopter can be put onto automatic pilot at a set height and a joystick by the door can be used to move it forward, back and sideways to the best position for pick up. If they have to, pilots can land on water and take off again.
With two Rolls Royce engines they can get airborne in winds of up to 45mph or even higher. It is not unusual to carry ten passengers, but 17 is the maximum.
If one engine is lost they can stay in the air, but would need to land at an airstrip like Newcastle. They cost £8,000 an hour in fuel to operate, rising to £30,000 an hour if the cost of crew and training is taken into account.
The aircraft at the main gate, or ‘Gate Guardian’, is a Phantom as Boulmer was classed as an Air Defence Station and that is certainly an air defence aircraft.