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A working day in the life of Flight Lieutenant Wales

20th November 2012

Flight Lieutenant Wales at work

Flight Lieutenant Wales at work

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The Duke of Cambridge ”“ who is known in his Royal Air Force working life as Flight Lieutenant Wales ”“ is a Search and Rescue (SAR) pilot flying Royal Air Force Sea King helicopters from their base at RAF Valley on Anglesey, north Wales. Flt Lt Wales’s shifts are the same as any other pilot. The accompanying pictures show a typical ‘day in the life’ of Flt Lt Wales when he and his crew are providing SAR cover for their 24 hour shift.

Each morning will begin with a briefing from the off-going duty SAR crew from the previous shift. Typically, this will include an engineering brief about the state of their aircraft, an update on specific air and ground activities in the area and the local and national weather forecasts for the next 5 days.

From the moment the crew starts its shift, they are at “Readiness State 15” between 8am and 10pm, which means they aim to be airborne within 15 minutes of receiving a search and rescue call. As the crew operate on a 24 hour duty, they adopt “Readiness State 45” at night, which allows extra time to plan and prepare for night-time operations.

Naturally, the crew cannot predict when, or if, they will be scrambled, nor indeed, to what type of incident. To hone and maintain their skills, the men and women of the crew spend much of their time planning and taking part in search and rescue training exercises, often with other local emergency services, such as the RNLI, Mountain Rescue Teams and local Fire and Rescue Services.

SAR aircrews expect to fly into conditions, from which others are fleeing, meaning they often find themselves flying in gales or through clouds, driving rain and poor visibility. This is why the aircrew are constantly training, to enable them to reach those in peril on land, at sea, in the mountains or in flooded towns day and night.

The RAF Search and Rescue Force flies two versions of the Sea King helicopter. Flt Lt Wales flies the Sea King Mark 3. He is part of a four person crew, which includes two pilots (an aircraft captain and a co-pilot), a winchman, most of whom are fully-trained paramedics, and a radar/winch operator. The Sea King helicopter can carry a maximum of 17 passengers and with a full fuel load can fly for up to six hours with a maximum range of 250 nautical miles.

Before a sortie, each member of the crew is responsible for checking his or her own kit. As a pilot, Flt Lt Wales checks things like the airframe, fuel, hydraulic and navigation systems.

During the shift, the crew is constantly on-call. Even while airborne on a training flight, they can be called to perform a rescue. Like the civilian emergency services, the type of incident varies tremendously. It could be anything from rescuing a group of lost hill walkers in Snowdonia to a large-scale operation rescuing people from a sinking vessel out in the Irish Sea. The Sea King helicopter has an impressive list of rescue aids, including a hydraulic winch with 75 metres of steel cable. This is capable of delivering the winchman to most casualty locations and lifting up to three people simultaneously.

The Search and Rescue Force is a busy unit within the RAF. Over the past ten years, the average number of annual callouts for all the SAR crews around the UK is over 1,950. RAF Valley typically responds to a high number of callouts, as it covers the north Wales area, which is a very popular area for walkers and climbers.

Downtime is also an important part of the job. When the crew is not conducting a search and rescue mission or preparing for a training exercise, they can usually be found re-charging their batteries in the crew-room or eating a meal in the nearby dining room. Computer games ”“ especially the likes of ‘Call of Duty’ and other military-themed games ”“ are a favourite for the crew if they have a spare moment in the evenings. However, they must remain in constant contact and can never be more than 60 seconds away from their aircraft in case an emergency call comes in.

As the end of their 24 hour shift draws to a close, the crew will prepare a comprehensive brief for the next day’s on-coming crew and then brief them on what lies ahead, before hanging up their flying kit and heading home. The outgoing crew may also test fly aircraft which have been recently repaired at the end of their shift. Once the outgoing crew has clocked off, they remain on “2nd standby” for the majority of the next day, standing by to support more complex search and rescue operations if the call for help is made.

Photographs are Crown Copyright, 2012. Photo credit: SAC Faye Storer MOD.

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