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RAF Kinloss

Warning flag at Warcop military training area <em>Picture: Helen Wilkinson</em>

Warning flag at Warcop military training area Picture: Helen Wilkinson

Monday’s statement by defence secretary Liam Fox on changes to the military setup in Scotland has been widely reported in terms of its effect on defence capability and the employment situation in the areas involved. What hasn’t as yet been discussed anywhere near as fully are the consequences for the outdoor recreational community – even though these will be profound and far-reaching.

There are two main issues. The first, and the one most discussed thus far, is the effect that changes to the three Ls – RAF Kinloss, RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Leuchars – will have on the search and rescue (SAR) situation, given the heavy and historical involvement these bases have had in that area of work.

As things stand, Kinloss and Leuchars host the two Scotland-based RAF mountain rescue teams (MRTs) – there are two further teams down south, at Leeming in North Yorkshire and Valley on Anglesey. Both Scottish teams are busy: RAF Kinloss MRT attended 150 incidents during the five-year period 2005–09, while the Leuchars team responded to 73 callouts during that same five-year period. Kinloss has also been home to the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC), which provides military/police/civilian coordination in rescue-related matters.

With both Kinloss and Leuchars due to close in RAF terms, the SAR situation will undergo upheaval – but the retention of Lossiemouth as an RAF base does appear to make the situation clearer at least in relation to the Moray bases.

“The powers that be have not decided what is happening with the [Leuchars] team,” says former RAF Leuchars MRT leader David “Heavy” Whalley. “Kinloss are moving to RAF Lossiemouth – the only problem is that they will not be able to use the purpose-built MRT section at Kinloss. They will be nearer the helicopter, though.”

Given the end of RAF involvement at the Fife base, Whalley doesn’t see any hope that the MRT there will survive. “I would imagine Leuchars MRT will close,” he says, “[but] the civilian teams are so strong now I do not think it will affect rescue in Scotland. In a big rescue in the 1970–1990s we would supply 50-plus [people] for big incidents. Nowadays we are lucky if we get 25. This is due to the Gulf conflict and overstretch.

“No one is saying what is happening to the RAF teams, they have a huge historical influence and have saved many lives, but things change. I was team leader there during Lockerbie and have so many memories of the station and the local people. It will be a huge loss to the area. The country is in a mess – no money, yet we continue to fight wars in Libya and Afghanistan, crazy.”

The enormous value of the RAF SAR involvement is acknowledged by David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland: “Whatever the future holds for the Leuchars MRT, the MCofS wishes to put on record its appreciation of the superb work by its members on behalf of all mountaineers and the public over the years. We hope that a way forward will be found so that their essential search and rescue work will be allowed to continue in the future.”

This is echoed by Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland: “The RAF MRTs have played a superb role over many years in helping with search and rescue operations in the Scottish hills. They are an essential complement to the civilian, volunteer-based MRT teams which form the cornerstone of mountain rescue in Scotland. We will be seeking assurances from the UK government that the forthcoming changes in RAF airbases will not diminish the effectiveness of the existing RAF mountain rescue teams in their support of search and rescue operations in all parts of Scotland.”

Away from the SAR side of things, the second change arising from Monday’s Ministry of Defence announcement could prove to be even more contentious, as it involves that perennial hot potato – access. Liam Fox spoke of a “new training area” in southern Scotland, the details of which have “yet to be finalised”. There has been talk of a Scottish Salisbury Plain, while another comparison could be with the Warcop training area in the northern Pennines, where upland access has long been subject to considerable restriction, both in terms of actual training activity and the risk from unexploded ordnance lying around.

Wherever the new training area is established, it will be of interest to Ramblers Scotland, which monitors not just upland access issues but also lower and mid-height ground as well. “We are surprised that the recent UK government announcement of changes in MoD operations has not clarified where and how large this training area will be,” says Dave Morris, “and what type of training will be involved. The decision to establish one of the UK’s five Multi-Role Brigades in Kirknewton, between Edinburgh and Livingston, inevitably raises questions about their associated training area.

“Proposals to extend an MoD live firing range in the nearby Pentland Hills Regional Park were defeated in the early 1990s, as was an earlier proposal to purchase a large tract of Knoydart for military training.

“In general, military training facilities and the use of the Scottish countryside for adventure training by service personnel has worked well over many years and there is good integration with other outdoor activity enthusiasts. But the scale of military training operations in Scotland looks as though it might change substantially with the Kirknewton development.

“If this leads to a large training area with high impacts from equipment use, from live firing and access restrictions, then there will be potential controversy. We will be seeking a meeting with the appropriate UK government minister at an early opportunity to get a clearer idea of their proposals and options.”

It remains to be seen which part of “southern Scotland” will play host to the proposed training area – The Caledonian Mercury has asked the Scottish environment minister for clarification without as yet receiving any reply. But wherever it is – somewhere such as Kirknewton in or near the Central Belt, in one of the huge forested areas such as Craik or Galloway, or in more traditional hill-farming Borders country – it will be very disruptive in terms of both day-to-day life and general public access.

To an extent, the weight of objection and unhappiness is likely to be related to whether the eventual area includes any significant listed hills. In the Warcop militarised zone, part of the problem is that one of the hills concerned, Mickle Fell, is not only the highest point of modern County Durham but also of the old county of Yorkshire, and the only reliable access being via a convoluted route from the east has created ill-feeling. (Even more so with neighbouring Little Fell, more or less completely “closed” despite its status as one of the English 2,000-foot summits and thus being a significant target for walkers.)

This was also part of the concern with the old proposals to militarise Knoydart mentioned by Morris – although there the threat was not just to hill access but to the wild and undeveloped character of the peninsula as a whole.

Another possible – and more recent – analogy could be with Alladale in the north of Scotland, where there have been proposals to partly close a large tract of land and create a wildlife reserve. The situation there is civilian rather than military, but again there are significant hills in play – for instance the remote Corbett Carn Ban – and this has added to the strength of feeling in the debate.

It remains to be seen whether the new military training area sparks an Alladale-type debate but with tanks instead of wolves. In “quality of land” terms, somewhere in or close to the Central Belt would be less contentious than in the bigger-hill country of the Borders – the trig point-bagging and HuMPing communities are not major constituencies, after all. There would, however, be high-profile concern from the Ramblers and other access agencies regardless of where the proposals came. Popular low-level walks exist right across the country, and as things stand the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 holds sway unless there is a clear legal reason for it to be locally revoked.

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Armed Forces Day parade <em>Picture: John Knox</em>

Armed Forces Day parade Picture: John Knox

By John Knox

The skirl of the pipes is at once magnificent and frightening. It captured my mood exactly as I joined the crowd in the Royal Mile on Saturday for this year’s Armed Forces Day. Prince Charles, David Cameron and Alex Salmond, each representing their different interests in the day, stood outside Holyrood Palace to take the salute as 2,500 troops marched past.

Edinburgh was the centrepiece of this year’s celebrations – taking place across the UK. At noon, the RAF Red Arrows streaked across the sky trailing clouds of glory in the form of red, white and blue tail-smoke. Down in the docks at Leith, HMS Portland, a Type 23 frigate, was open to the public. Various displays, piping competitions, flypasts and church services have been held over the weekend.

As a group of soldiers waited their turn to march forward, a proud mother next to me photographed her son in the ranks. “Smile,” she called out, which her son duly did, trying not to look too embarrassed. “That’s my boy,” she told her neighbour in the crowd, a visitor from Australia. “Tomorrow he’s due to get his sergeant’s stripes. He’s served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and just now he’s based in Ireland.” She then showed the visitor a picture of her son’s family. “Oh that’s so sweet,” said the Australian.

The war in Afghanistan has brought home to us the danger these men face and the sacrifice their families make to carry out Britain’s international commitments. Over 370 service personnel have been killed in the ten years we have had troops in Afghanistan. That awful phrase, “The men’s families have been informed,” tolls like a bell as each news story from the front comes in.

As the number of deaths escalated, three years ago the idea was born of an Armed Forces Day. It’s a day for the nation to thank the soldiers for their service and sacrifice. And it’s a day for the Army, Navy and Air Force to connect with the people who are asking them to serve and who are paying the bills. Whatever we think of the particular wars and missions these men are sent on, everyone wants to “back our boys and girls”.

The cobbles of the Royal Mile have been tramped on by military parades for centuries. They have echoed from the sound of war at home and abroad, wars of imperialism and wars of defence. Military action is a nasty and unpredictable activity, to be avoided if at all possible. But sometimes it is necessary and someone, very often our very best people, has to do the bloody business.

Otherwise we would have to give up our role of peacekeepers and fighters against tyranny, oppression, cruelty and injustice. People such as Saddam, Gaddafi and the Taliban would continue to abuse their people. And to allow that to happen would be to give away part of our humanity. Thus a military parade is both a magnificent thing and a dreadful thing.

This year’s parades are particularly sensitive, not just because of Afghanistan but because of the defence budget cuts. The cuts are happening for two reasons, both of them controversial. One is the UK’s overall budget deficit and the coalition government’s determination to reduce it. The other is the long-term downsizing of Britain’s place in the world.

The British armed forces, at 233,000 strong, are the second-largest in the European Union – after France. We have the fourth-largest military budget in the world – after the USA, China and France. For decades, we have been debating how long our relatively small country can continue to play such a large role in the world. And these issues are now coming to a drum head. The government wants to cut the defence budget of £34 billion by 8 per cent over the next four years. That will mean a reduction in personnel of 17,000.

In Scotland, we have already had the amalgamation of the six army regiments. The RAF base at Kinloss is due to close down at the end of next month. It looks like either RAF Leuchars or RAF Lossiemouth will become a base for Britain’s returning Army of the Rhine. The two aircraft carriers to be assembled at Rosyth will not be equipped with jump-jets until at least 2020, following the decision to scrap the Harrier squadrons. A decision on replacing Trident nuclear submarines has been postponed. And so the cuts go on. Some may be welcome but all of them will be unsettling.

Armed Forces Day thus has a third purpose: to prevent morale in the ranks taking a nose-dive. The budget cuts and the losses and uncertainties in the sands of Afghanistan are a double burden which must be difficult to bear. It makes the parade of smart, cheerful soldiers down the Royal Mile all the more impressive and the skirling of their pipes all the more magnificent.

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Mountain rescue

Picture: Ranald McIntyre

There has been much discussion of this week’s defence review, especially of the intention to close RAF Kinloss (with the base possibly converted to Army use) and of the threat to nearby RAF Lossiemouth. Beyond the immediate military issues, there has been profound concern for the employment and economic future of Moray, given the local significance of the two bases.

One of the more specific concerns was discussed in The Caledonian Mercury on the day of the announcement, namely the effect that closure(s) would have on mountain rescue provision, both in northern Scotland and more widely. Kinloss is home to one of the four RAF mountain rescue teams (MRTs), and also to the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC), which provides overall military/police/civilian coordination in rescue-related matters.

The significance of the Kinloss provision is considerable, as indicated by figures provided by Bob Sharp. A civilian MRT member (formerly head of Lomond MRT), Sharp now serves as statistician for the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland. In the five years 2005–09, RAF Kinloss MRT attended 150 incidents (by year: 32–25–35–29–29), while Kinloss ARCC will have been involved in the majority of incidents requiring the services of any of the 31 Scottish rescue teams.

The other Scottish RAF MRT – based at Leuchars – responded to 73 callouts during that same five-year period. This is only half as many as Kinloss in part because the more northerly team is closer to the more serious hills, and also, as Sharp notes, because “Kinloss is next door to the ARCC so they possibly get wind of an incident before Leuchars”.

Exactly what will now happen is unclear. The cancellation of the order for nine Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft was confirmed by David Cameron on Tuesday, and this in turn appears to spell the end of RAF involvement at Kinloss, possibly as early as March 2011.

Pressed for more detail on this, Squadron Leader Bruno Wood of the MOD press office in Whitehall told The Caledonian Mercury that “Although RAF flying activity at Kinloss will cease, the MOD is considering if there are alternative military uses for the base. It is too early to comment on the wider estates implications, which are being considered.”

Perhaps that “flying activity” leaves the door ajar for Kinloss to remain as a coordination centre, but the MOD wouldn’t comment further when pressed for clarification.

As for non-military people with an interest in mountain rescue, here is a selection of thoughts:

John Henderson – ex-RAF serviceman and member of Moray Mountaineering Club

The closure of RAF Kinloss is devastating for the whole economy and infrastructure of the local area. For example, 38% of the NHS staff at Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin are related to RAF personnel. Local charities benefit hugely from constant fundraising activities by service personnel. Many of the sports clubs/Scouts/Boys Brigade etc in Forres and surrounding area are run by volunteer RAF personnel.

You can then factor in the valuable service carried out all over the Highlands by the Kinloss MRT (made up from Kinloss and Lossiemouth personnel) who are a well-trained, equipped and motivated organisation. Many of the Kinloss team were on the 2001 RAF expedition to Everest when they put two members, Dan Carroll and Rusty Bale on the summit.

So this closure affects the functioning of all walks of life in the surrounding towns and villages – an effect felt more personally in small communities where RAF personnel and their families are identified regularly in the local newspapers for getting involved and integrating fully in the life of the area.

The politicians do not appreciate or value this importance to small or remote areas when taking their decisions to close service establishments.

When Kinloss and Lossiemouth close it could be the worse thing to happen to this area since Culloden!

Heather Morning – mountain safety advisor, Mountaineering Council of Scotland

Since the inauguration of RAF mountain rescue in the 1950s, the team at Kinloss have provided an invaluable service for mountaineers, hillwalkers and climbers who have found themselves in difficulty. The team have worked alongside the civilian mountain rescue teams on literally hundreds of callouts over the 50-year period and undoubtedly have contributed to saving many lives.

Despite the RAF MRT’s primary role of rescuing crashed aircrew survivors, the team is often called to assist when more “man-power” or specialist expertise is required – for example, during extensive searches for missing persons or when their specialist expertise is necessary in the case of crashed aircraft. The civilian teams do not necessarily have either the expertise to deal with hazardous substances or the man-power required to conduct extended stretcher carries and searches.

The loss of the Kinloss team will also mark the end of a long chapter of dedicated involvement by some outstanding mountaineers and climbers, who have added a wealth of expertise and character to the history of mountaineering in Scotland.

Questions also need to be answered regarding the future of the ARCC at Kinloss and Sea King helicopters based at Lossiemouth, both of which currently provide a vital role in mountain rescue provision in Scotland.

Chris Townsend – outdoor writer and photographer based near Grantown on Spey

My thoughts on the likely closure of Kinloss regarding mountain rescue is that we need more information. Where will rescue teams be based? Where will the coordination centre be? It’s difficult to comment without knowing the answers to these questions.

I know some people are speculating that this is the start of the privatisation of the rescue service – MyOutdoors.co.uk has a piece on this – but I don’t think there’s any evidence for this yet. It is certainly worrying, but there’s not enough detail yet to know how serious the situation will be.

Mike Dales – access and environment officer, Scottish Canoe Association

There are two issues here: the loss of the Nimrod aircraft and of Kinloss’s role as a coordinating centre. In terms of the Nimrod’s role in search and rescue, its main contribution will be in serious situations well out to sea. From a recreational point of view, it is likely to be yachts in trouble in the North Atlantic or in the middle of the North Sea where the Nimrod would have played a key role in the search. For mountain rescues on land, or sea kayaks in trouble off the coast, it is far more likely to be a helicopter that carries out the search and rescue.

Turning to Kinloss’s coordination role, that may well have to be moved to another location – in which case the issue could be one of losing vital personnel and of maintaining efficiency during the changeover.

Andy Beaton – member of Dundonnell MRT

As a civilian MRT member, like everyone else, I’m very much waiting to see what happens when the dust settles. I’ve been concerned for some time about the likely loss of either or both of the RAF Kinloss MRT or the 202 Squadron Sea Kings at Lossie – the latter in terms of their age if nothing else.

Kinloss MRT, ARCC and 202 Squadron have been at the heart of Scottish mountain rescue for decades, and the support which they provide to the civilian teams is invaluable.

Non-mountaineers should also be concerned about the potential loss of these assets. Lossiemouth Sea Kings have saved dozens of lives in “lowland” emergencies too, attending to everything from mothers in labour to road accidents. Kinloss MRT likewise are on hand to add extra manpower for non-mountain searches for missing persons.

They are part of the fabric of search and rescue in the Highlands and I wonder how much thought has been given to what, if anything, will replace them. Admittedly, RAF Lossiemouth has not got the chop yet, but I wonder how long it is before that happens. In any event, there will be little stomach in Westminster for the replacement of the venerable Sea King.

An opinion was also sought from officials at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, but they declined to comment. The thoughts of various other agencies – including Glenmore Lodge and CairnGorm Mountain Ltd – have also been requested.

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A Nimrod MRA4 "ZJ518". <em>Picture: MilborneOne</em>Amid the Harriers-and-carriers announcements of cancellations and retentions in today’s strategic defence review, came the news that many people in Moray have been dreading: the scrapping of the order for nine Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft due to have been based at RAF Kinloss.

This in turn appears to mark the end of RAF involvement at the base, which is likely to be converted to an army barracks for troops returning to the UK from postings in Germany.

While reporting of the defence review has focused on job losses and economic implications, nothing has been said about the future of the four RAF mountain rescue teams – and in particular the one based at RAF Kinloss.

The RAF maintains four teams – at Leuchars in Fife, Leeming in Yorkshire, Valley on Anglesey, and at Kinloss. Between them, they cover the UK in search-and-rescue terms. It is primarily a military resource but historically there has been a massive and significant involvement in civilian rescue, as a form of training and as a basic human necessity. Certain parts of this service now appear to be under threat.

RAF Kinloss opened as a pilot training school five months before the outbreak of the Second World War, then switched to providing operational training for bomber crews. After the war, the base was again restructured to cater for maritime aircrews, and it was during this period that search-and-rescue began to play a part.

The RAF Kinloss mountain rescue homepage outlines the thinking behind the service: “Following the Chicago Convention of 1947, the United Kingdom undertook to provide assistance to aircraft, ships and persons in distress within its area of responsibility. Secondly, we provide rescue and medical assistance to service personnel who require help during operational and adventurous training. Our service is closely linked with the RAF’s Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters. Despite the growing number of incidents where a SAR helicopter can reach the incident faster, the RAF MRS remains to date the only all weather SAR force in the RAF.”

Over the years, the Kinloss team has become renowned as an exceptionally strong and competent unit, its members spending countless off-duty hours engaged in a variety of impressive outdoor activities, most prominent among them all-season climbing and hillwalking.

A prime example comes in the form of Kinloss stalwart David “Heavy” Whalley, who was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1992 and the MBE in 2002, both for services to mountain rescue. He has racked up seven Munro rounds along the way, and has only recently stood down from the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland.

But Whalley is by no means alone in his level of engagement with outdoor activity and safety in all its forms. There has long been a huge amount of outdoor experience to be found at Kinloss; its training courses are renowned, and a great many people, both military and civilian, owe their lives to the work of the team.

Kinloss is the control centre for all four RAF teams, overseeing liaison between military rescuers and their civilian counterparts, for instance in the allocation of duties to Sea King helicopters. But there are less high-profile aspects as well, and one experienced civilian rescuer, expressing concern over possible changes, noted today that the RAF MRTs have “special skills – dealing with spilt fuel, pyrotechnics, jagged metal, explosives, etc – that we do not have”.

Until the dust settles on the fine detail of the defence review, it will be unclear whether the skills of the RAF Kinloss team are to be diluted or done away with. As yet, there has been no indication that existing expertise might be relocated to some other base. There are hopes that RAF Lossiemouth, a few miles to the east, will remain in operation (although the Lossiemouth Tornados might yet be transferred to RAF Marham in Norfolk) but whether the Kinloss rescue people could be moved there remains to be seen.

All that can be said is that, at present, the signs do not look promising in terms of a retention of military rescue services in the northern half of Scotland. Of the two Scottish RAF teams, Leuchars appears to be safe, whereas Kinloss appears to be doomed.

The Caledonian Mercury has asked a variety of military and civilian rescuers for their thoughts and fears, but thus far no-one has been prepared to speak on the record. As more information emerges over the coming days, we will report further.

A Sea King rescue helicopter

A Sea King rescue helicopter

Last Tuesday saw the announcement at Westminster that the privately financed Soteria consortium would run the “joint search and rescue helicopter project”.

Starting in 2012, Soteria will oversee the UK’s mountain rescue and coastguard services in a 25-year contract worth more than £6 billion. There will be a 70 per cent reduction in the number of military aircrew involved in search and rescue (SAR), with civilians being trained to meet the shortfall.

Much of the initial reaction, in Scotland at least, focused on the potential for job losses. Soteria intends to stop using HMS Gannet at Prestwick as their base in that area, switching instead to Glasgow Airport.

Several Ayrshire MPs and MSPs spoke out, but less was heard about what those actively involved in search and resuce think about the changes.

The Caledonian Mercury contacted two very experienced Scottish SAR people, one from the military side of things, one a civilian volunteer, and asked for their views.

David “Heavy” Whalley is one of the most experienced rescuers in Scotland, having spent 38 years as part of various RAF rescue teams, including three years at the rescue coordination centre at RAF Kinloss. Now retired – but still a very active mountaineer and mountain-rescue consultant – he is the statistician for the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland and is working on his eighth round of Munros.

All of this gives him a considerable understanding of the complexities of SAR. “The contract has been set,” says Whalley, speaking in a personal capacity, “and I pray that they have looked at mountain rescue training with teams on a regular basis. This will ensure that those teams who are not used to the new aircraft become familiarised as soon as possible. Remember, the contracts are being set to make money for the companies, and they do that by cutting down on cost.”

David Dodson is the leader of the Lomond mountain rescue team, comprised of civilian volunteers and covering the area north of Glasgow. At present, his team usually, but not exclusively, works with navy helicopters flying out of HMS Gannet.

Dodson’s main concern is that the new arrangement will allow Soteria-controlled helicopters to operate identically to the current military-controlled ones. “They have always tried to reassure our concerns,” he says, “stating that we ought not to notice any difference in their support of mountain rescue activity. That said, with a commercial operation of SAR, issues such as access to helicopters for training purposes, and limit of flying hours, still have to be finalised.”

As for the switch of helicopter type, from the familiar Sea King to the Sikorsky S92, Dodson notes that the Sikorsky is bigger and heavier and is already being used by the coastguard in the north of Scotland.

“Feedback from some of the teams who have worked with them state that the greater downdraught of the S92 compared with the Sea King is significant. This could cause issues on steep icy slopes.”

Mountain rescue personnel working with the S92 have been advised to wear safety goggles and earplugs.

“The Sea King is desperately needing replaced,” says Whalley, who recalls earlier concerns about a switch of helicopter. “When the Sea King took over from the Wessex [in the early 1990s], there was lots of worry about the downdraft. Mountain rescue teams spent a long time getting used to the changes and adapting to the new aircraft, and in the end we got it right.”

Clearly, for all the done-and-dusted-sounding Westminster announcement, there is still much work to be done on the changeover.

“I would like confirmation that there will be no changes to how SAR aircraft help civilian mountain rescue teams,” says Dodson, “down to having no limits to the numbers of joint exercises for training purposes and no change to availability for callouts.”

As for the move from Prestwick to Glasgow, it could well end up helping the Lomond team. “I sympathise with the ramifications to groundcrew/aircrew and their families,” says Dodson. “But being entirely selfish, the change will increase response time and shorten the time for aircraft to leave the search area for refuelling etc.”

Overall, thus far, the announcement appears to have been greeted with a mix of concern and cautious pragmatism. “These are very interesting times,” says Whalley, “and it will take a lot of work by all parties to ensure that the service to the casualty does not suffer. The RAF, Royal Navy and coastguard helicopters have been magnificent over the years. Hopefully the new aircraft and crews will continue to provide an outstanding service.”