Save the Portland Helicopter

On December 18th, 2013, Richard Drax met the managing director of Bristow Helicopters Ltd, the company which has won the new Government contract to run national Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter services.

The meeting, the latest stage of the MP’s long running campaign to retain the Portland SAR helicopter, was held between Richard Drax, Mike Imlach, Director of European Operations for Bristow, and a Department for Transport (DfT) representative.

‘I was grateful to Mr Imlach for coming to Westminster,’ says Drax, ‘And I congratulated him upon Bristow’s success in winning the contract. I have absolutely no problem with Bristow or Mr Imlach. Bristow is an outstandingly  professional and well-run company and I have no doubt that it will discharge its duties supremely well.’

‘The problem is that those duties, which were drawn up and specified by the DfT, fall short of what is needed. Twenty five per cent of all call outs in the UK happen in our area. All of those must be attended to within what the emergency services call the ‘golden hour.’  That is the first hour, after which casualties’ chances of survival decrease with time.’

‘Regrettably, the new arrangements ensure that two of the ‘alternate’ helicopters at Lee on Solent and Culdrose will take about 40 and 55 minutes, respectively, to start up and arrive on station. The likelihood of anyone in the water surviving is therefore, correspondingly lower.’

‘Bristow helicopters tendered for a contract which had 10 helicopter bases, rather than the current 12. They won the contract to run those 10 bases and I am sure they will do that to the best of their ability. But I felt it was important to explain just what we were losing at Portland, and exactly how much harder it will be for Bristow to cover our area effectively.’

‘I did make it clear to the representative from the DfT that any loss of life as a result of closing Portland would be seen as a complete dereliction of duty by the DfT. They have been warned repeatedly that there is a massive hole at the centre of their calculations. Yet they have persisted with this plan.’

‘The DfT representative agreed to convey my points back to the Minister.’


Further information about Richard Drax's campaign against the planned closure of the Portland SAR helicopter follows:


 The Portland Search and Rescue Helicopter base is due to close in 2017, despite ample evidence showing that it pays for itself between six and eight times over. Minister for Transport Stephen Hammond has recently visited the base but was unable to delay the bidding process launched for new civilian operators, which has now been awarded to Bristow Helicopters. Richard Drax remains hopeful that a solution can be found.

Richard Drax, MP, continues his battle to save the Portland Search and Rescue helicopter, due to close in 2017. He has headed a delegation to the Prime Minister, met with three successive Ministers for Transport and written to his felow MPs to garner support. In November 2012, he gave evidence in person to the Transport Select Committee, after submitting a 12-page report for scrutiny. (To read the report in full, see below). He won an adjournment debate on the subject in the House of Commons on December 19th, 2012 and he launched a new e-petition on the Government website (please sign up below) in August 2012.

In January 2013, Richard asked Prime Minister David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions to send a Minister to Portland to see the helicopter base for himself. Minister for Trnsport Stephen Hammond arrived on March 14th, 2013 and spent several hours with those involved in operation of the SAR helicopter.

Despite the news that the Government has now awarded the contract for search and rescue operations at 10 UK bases to Bristow Helicopters on the basis that Portland and RAF Boulmer will close, Richard fights on. Portland helicopter costs very little for the amount of good it does.

Last year alone, trauma consultants at Dorchester County Hospital calculated that without the helicopter landing at the hospital, 25 more people would have died. That, using the Department for Transport's own figures of £1.75 million per fatality, would have cost the public purse £43.75 million.

The Department for Transport has admitted that the Portland base costs only £5m to £7m a year to keep open. In July 2012, during one single day of catastrophic flooding, the helicopter saved at least eight lives.

Portland SAR helicopter sits in the centre of the busiest search and rescue area in the country. A full 25 per cent of all call outs take place within Portland's operational area. Last year, the base undertook the same number of taskings as the 24-hour base at Lee on Solent; yet Portland is open for only 12 hours a day. 

The decision to close Portland and RAF Boulmer in Northumberland was taken after PFI financing arrangements set in place by the last government were cancelled by the Coalition in February 2011.

The ten remaining SAR helicopter facilities are to be operated by civilian crews working for Bristows, including those currently managed by the Navy and RAF. The new procurement programme is based on research, which says that  10 new SAR helicopters available 98% of the time will be more effective than the current 12, which are only available 65% of the time.

The proposal is that cover for the Portland area will now be provided by 'alternate' helicopters at Lee on Solent, and Culdrose in Cornwall. Flying time from Lee on Solent is about 20 minutes and Culdrose, 40 minutes. The inevitable delay for anyone immersed in UK waters off Portland, is potentially fatal. Helicopters will be flying further, for longer, with less chance of a successful outcome. At present, the Portland coastguard can be on scene in a few minutes.

In addition, if the Solent helicopter is committed elsewhere or unserviceable, the consequences could be grave. Currently, in the case of mechanical failure, the Solent area is covered by the Portland helicopter. The helicopter from Culdrose could not possibly meet all these commitments.

Richard Drax, MP was invited to give evidence to the inquiry into the proposed closure of the Portland helicopter by the Commons Transport Select Committee on Monday, November 5th. In an unusual development, the powerful committee requested Drax’s appearance after he submitted a hard-hitting report in response to the Committee’s request for written evidence on changes to the coastguard service in September.

The Select Committee was particularly interested in how changes to the coastguard service were being implemented and their potential impact on the search and rescue service.

Drax’s report, written after extensive local research and interviews with those involved, concluded that cutting the Portland helicopter was an act of ‘sheer folly’.

He was particularly concerned that those most involved with and knowledgeable about the helicopter, would be reluctatnt to testify to the Transport Select Committee, for fear of losing their jobs.

He also highlighted how flawed the modelling process by the Department for Transport has been, citing criticisms made by the DfT’s own consultants. Using a simplistic grid reference system, the modelling 'evened out' all SAR callouts across the UK, ignoring the fact that most of them are concentrated in one area - around Portland.

Drax has always emphasised that this is not a political matter. “This has brought together people of all political persuasions because in the end, we all want the same thing. We all want to save the helicopter. This is not just a constituency matter, nor is it solely a Dorset matter. We have 16m visitors a year. They come from all over the country, indeed the world, to enjoy our coastline. It is important that they are able to enjoy it safely. And there is no doubt that if the Portland helicopter goes, safety will be compromised. There can be no sensible rationale for pursuing this destructive and ultimately dangerous proposal.’

The Government has undertaken to consider a Commons debate on matters attracting more than 100,000 signatures.Please sign the new petition on the Government website. To find it, please click here


Richard Drax's complete report to the Transport Select Committee follows below:



1. The Portland search and rescue (SAR) helicopter operates in an area with the highest number of call outs in the UK. The base is located between Beachy Head and Dodman Point, where one quarter of all incidents co-ordinated by HM Coastguard around the UK (including Northern Ireland) occur. 

2. The helicopter is formally tasked to maritime rescues, commercial, light and military aircraft crashes, French SAR for mid Channel incidents, as well as supporting the emergency services on shore and other major events.

3. Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) accounts show that the Portland helicopter costs between £4 million and £5 million per annum. And, despite operating for only 12 hours a day, it is tasked every year as frequently as the 24-hour, SAR helicopter at Lee on Solent (Solent). 

4. In addition, since 2007, the Portland helicopter has never dropped below 7th out of the 12 existing bases when it comes to number of tasks.

5. In November 2011, Transport Secretary Justine Greening announced that the Portland SAR helicopter would close in 2018. In her letter to South Dorset MP Richard Drax, confirming the decision, she wrote: “I did not undertake any consultations before announcing the new basing arrangements since I am improving the service.”

6. I disagree and this paper argues for the retention of this vital, life-saving service. 


7. PFI. The PFI (The SAR-H Private Finance Initiative) arrangements, established under Labour to finance the UK’s SAR facilities, were cancelled by the Coalition in February 2011. Instead, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced it would tender for a new, 10 year, UK-wide service contract, in the Official Journal of the European Union.

8. Criteria. Key user requirements (KUR) include: 98% availability; take off within 15 minutes by day and 45 minutes at night; range of 170 nm; arrival at very high and high risk areas within 60 minutes of take-off (total from call out: 75 minutes by day and 105 minutes at night); ability to hover on scene for 30 minutes, without refuelling.

9. Civilian contract. The MOD, which retires its aging fleet of Sea King helicopters by 2016, would be the first of the current SAR providers to be replaced by civilian contractors, providing complementary services through a mixed fleet of modern helicopters.

10. Modern aircraft. DfT modelling suggests that modern helicopters operating from just 10 bases, rather than the current 12, would provide a faster and more reliable service. Consequently, operations from RAF Boulmer and MCA Portland would end. 

The case for retention

11. Call outs. The coastal area around Portland is a focus of intense marine activity, especially during the summer. The need for its own helicopter cover is proven. One quarter of all coastguard callouts in the UK SAR area in 2011 were within the Portland, Solent and Brixham areas. 

12. No consultation. The UK SAR committee was not formally consulted over the closure of Portland. Neither was the Local Resilience Forum, which is especially concerned at future safety implications when both the Portland helicopter and the local Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) have gone.

13. Responsibilities. The Portland helicopter is requested, via the ARCC (Kinloss) or HMCG, by Dorset police, Fire Brigade, South West Ambulance Service (the air ambulance is grounded at night), French SAR authorities, commercial aircraft ‘Pan’ and ‘Mayday’ alerts, in addition to its SAR duties. 

14. Air ambulance. In addition to no night flying, the air ambulance frequently cannot access the casualty because it is not fitted with a winch. Neither is it large enough to carry intensive care teams for hospital transfers between, for example, Dorchester and John Radcliffe in Oxford. Consequently, the Portland helicopter is regularly tasked for air-ambulance-style work. 

15. Winch. In the support role for civil contingencies, the local coastguard helicopter is particularly effective and unique because it is equipped with a winch. 

16. This capability was essential during the Boscastle and Cumbrian floods, the Dorset floods earlier this year, rescues on Bodmin, Exmoor and Dartmoor, the salvage of the MSC Napoli and for other operations as far afield as the Severn, Wales, Cheltenham and the Channel Islands. 

17. Air show. The Portland helicopter was also used to recover the Red Arrows’ pilot, who crashed at last year’s annual Bournemouth air show.

 More recently, it attended the cliff fall at Burton Bradstock, quickly inserting a search dog and handler and then patrolling 16 miles of coastline also thought to be at risk.

18. Extra time. Relying upon alternative helicopter bases at Solent and RNAS Culdrose (Culdrose) will add an average of 25 minutes extra flying time from the former and 40 minutes from the latter and only then when they are not tasked elsewhere.

19. Example. On 20 August, 2012, the Portland helicopter was tasked to search for a four-year-old boy who’d fallen off a jetty into the River Severn at Burnham. The Solent helicopter was sent to a concurrent incident at Lulworth Cove, well inside the Portland patch. Under plans proposed, the Solent helicopter would have been sent to Burnham. Who would have covered Lulworth Cove and how long would it have taken?

20. Water. With casualties often in the water, when minutes count, any extra time is unacceptable and potentially fatal.

21. National Sailing Academy (Academy). The successful Olympic Sailing Games has opened up great potential for the Academy, based on Portland, which has been looking to attract major, international maritime events. In addition to advanced discussions on other events, the Academy has been selected as a ‘candidate city’ for the Volvo Ocean Race, to host a stopover in both 2015 and 2018. The presence of the helicopter is clearly significant in relation to all of the current and anticipated activity at the Academy.

22. Divers. The south coast is a very popular site for divers, with an abundance of wrecks. It is estimated there are more than 2,000 divers in the water between Swanage and Lyme Regis over a Bank Holiday weekend.

23. Incidents. There were more than 50 diving incidents in a year off Portland, with the helicopter reacting within minutes to each emergency. Ninety per cent of divers rescued needed decompression in a hyperbaric chamber within the ‘magic hour,’ after which chances of permanent injury rise sharply.

24. The Solent helicopter requires a minimum response time of 40 minutes to reach Portland. Therefore 45 divers a year could be at risk if the helicopter is axed.

25. Portland Port. It is the UK’s newest and fastest growing port, with rapidly increasing cruise ship operations, an expanding shipyard, bunkering, other marine activities and the possibility of a new cross Channel ferry service. Three hundred vessels a day pass within 20 miles of the port when they transit the English Channel, the world’s busiest shipping lane.

26. Interestingly, Torbay Council is planning a third harbour for cruise liners, with obvious implications for SAR cover within Portland’s remit. 

27. There are at least three serious incidents a year in the south western sea area, for which Portland Port is an important refuge. A recent example is the MSC Napoli which, having foundered in high seas, could only be approached by the Portland helicopter during the critical first phase of the rescue operation because of containers in the sea.

28. Emergency towing vessel (ETV). And with the loss of the ETV at Falmouth, a far greater reliance will be placed on Portland Port’s marine emergency response team, including the Portland helicopter.   

Flaws in the analysis

29. The DfT analysis, upon which the Transport Secretary is relying, was based upon a grid analysis on the frequency of callouts. That is overly simplistic and inadequate for an emergency service. Some grid squares would have had dozens of incidents in a year while others would have had none.

30. Without referring to areas with the highest number of incidents (eg. Portland), the assumption that 10 bases, equally spaced, could provide cover across the UK is clearly flawed.

31. The DfT’s own ‘Assurance Review of Search and Rescue Helicopter Basing’, conducted by Atkins, points out a number of flaws in the analysis used to revise the current system:

a. The report says that the use of Excel has resulted in static modelling with no representation of time-based events within the modelling. “Therefore items such as concurrency and availability are not being used in factoring the overall capability to achieve the response times required.”

b. In other words, some factors critical to this service, and which could affect the delivery of the service, were not modelled.

c. In addition, Atkins says that modelling “simply calculates times for helicopters to travel the distance from a base to the centre of a risk cell based on an assumed speed.” This, they say, is “not particularly complex” and “not undertaken using established good practice”, although they found no “gross errors.”

d. Atkins also point out that the data used is historic and does not take future variations in need into account. In view of the rapid expansion of Portland Port, a proposed offshore wind farm (circa 300 turbines), a new wreck/reef diving site, and the new sailing academy, this need could grow exponentially.

e. Atkins also states that 99.8 per cent of incidents occur when five aircraft or fewer are available nationally. A KUR is that all bases must be able to respond to multiple incidents concurrently. Cutting the number of helicopters available overall must have an impact on this. 

f. The modelling took no account of ‘down-time’ for the both the aircraft and aircrew after and operation. Therefore, the value of having a second airframe at high readiness is debatable if a tired crew is unable to fly it. Crew fatigue grounded the Solent helicopter, Rescue 104, three times this year. 

g. Technically, regular maintenance will mean that a second aircraft will not be readily available, even if a crew is.

32. Integrity. Critically, helicopter coverage along the south coast is complementary, with each base frequently covering for the other. Removing a helicopter would destroy this integrity when demand surges. 

33. Access. Dorset is one of the few counties without a motorway. Only a helicopter can guarantee speed of response and access to remote locations. Fewer aircraft overall would undermine that capability.

34. Faster aircraft might improve reaction times, but less of them would mean fewer incidents being attended simultaneously. 

35. Availability. The odds of incidents occurring simultaneously on a summer’s day are high. For example, on 23 occasions in the last year, the Solent helicopter was not available because it had been tasked. It’s logical, surely, to station a helicopter where it is needed most.

36. Political compromise. Whilst the equal spacing of assets around Britain’s coastline may appear ‘fair’, it smacks of a political compromise and makes no sense in view of the fact that 25 per cent of all incidents are located in one area.

37. The KUR stipulation that a helicopter should not take more than an hour to arrive on scene would not be possible for a Portland rescue if, for example, the Solent helicopter was even 30 minutes to the east of its base when a call came in. 

38. No matter how modern, fast and reliable a helicopter is, it can only be in one place at one time. It’s also worth noting that Solent will have to take over Portland’s responsibilities in the Channel Islands, thus removing it from the UK mainland for some time.

39. Teething problems. What is also forgotten is that modern or ‘new’ aircraft are not immune to design faults. An incident could ground a helicopter, as was the case with the AW139. 

40. Search time. It is irrefutable that helicopters at Solent and Culdrose would take longer to arrive at local emergencies than the Portland one. That would mean a longer search, over a wider area, at greater cost and with a lower chance of success.

41. Wear & tear. The MCA estimates that the loss of the Portland helicopter would mean alternate machines flying an extra 8,900 nautical miles, costing £250,000 a year. And that’s without additional crew costs, refuelling time and aircraft wear and tear.

42. Quantity. The Secretary of State wrote in her letter of 18 February, 2012, that 20 helicopters would be available at any one time: “With more aircraft able to take off more of the time under the future contract, there will be a greater overall likelihood of helicopters being able to attend incidents where they are most needed.”

43. That cannot be correct. Only 10 crews would be available at any one time – which means 10 helicopters flying - and even allowing for this, the analysis takes no account of rest time, refuelling and off-task time.

44. Culdrose responded to 242 callouts last year, only 14 of which were in the Portland area. Relying more on Culdrose would inevitably place greater strain on the system. 

45. Weather. Extreme weather is becoming more frequent and projected to become more significant in the future. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in recent weeks, the Portland helicopter responded frequently to cliff falls and floods.

Local view

46. No consultation. All those with an interest in retaining the Portland helicopter - the emergency services, medical teams, businesses, holiday organisations, neighbouring MPs and virtually all significant maritime bodies on the south coast - are appalled at not only the decision making process, but its conclusions.

47. The complete lack of consultation, the presumption that faster, newer helicopters from further away can do the same job as one based in the immediate vicinity and the conviction that a basic grid analysis is the appropriate tool to base such an important decision, are totally unsound. 

48. Unfortunately, those with an intimate knowledge of SAR operations feel constrained from speaking for fear of losing their jobs. The Select Committee should therefore consider asking understandably reluctant witnesses to give evidence, in addition to those who are not restrained.

49. Portland is a strategically vital forward operating base for the military, Royal Flight and VIPs visiting port and Sailing Academy). Aircraft can also refuel, as they did for the recent and lengthy search for the Purbeck Isle, a small fishing boat which foundered with the loss of her three crew. If Portland had been closed, the Solent helicopter would have been off scene for at least an hour in order to refuel. 

50. Value for money. Genuine savings should not be cited as a factor in closing Portland, which costs less than half of a 24 hour SAR base.  Using DfT figures for traffic deaths, preventing only four deaths a year would pay for the service.

51. During the recent July floods, the Portland helicopter rescued eight people in life threatening situations on just one day. Using DfT figures, the helicopter paid for itself twice over.

Closure of the MRCC

52. The general thrust of this paper argues for retention of the helicopter, but the planned closure of the MRCC next year is equally concerning. Like the helicopter, it is local, manned by watch-keepers who live in the area and know it intimately.

53. This knowledge enables them to best co-ordinate an incident and to task the most appropriate asset quickly and efficiently. 

54. The planned new co-ordination centre in Hampshire, dealing with a far larger area, will simply not meet the existing service, with operators becoming swamped by minutiae, especially when dealing with several incidents simultaneously. It is no accident that army units, both large and small, have their own independent ops rooms.


55. When examining the role and workload of the Portland helicopter, it is immediately apparent that the service is exceptionally good value for money.

56. It is located strategically in the centre of all activity, helps to retain the integrity of all SAR cover along the south coast and is tasked as much as its 24 hour neighbour (Solent), despite being a 12 hour station.

57. Dorset attracts 16 million visitors a year, even without the Olympics. Many of these visitors take to pleasure craft, walk on the cliff tops or enjoy the plentiful beaches.

58. Danger does not discriminate and the Portland SAR helicopter, quite apart from the professionalism and courage of the crew, is a reassuring and vital asset for our beautiful but sometimes deadly coastline.

59. To withdraw it would be an act of sheer folly, especially when the evidence for retention is so clear. The Transport Secretary has a duty of care to my constituents and to the millions of others who visit Dorset and that must be a valid argument for retention.

60. Finally, before Ms Greening was moved from her post, I had invited her to the constituency to hear the views of those intimately involved in SAR three times, but was ignored. Her decision not to consult was breathtaking, especially on such a serious issue, and I wonder whether it breaches any guidelines or regulations. 

61. At the time of submitting this report, a Government reshuffle has seen Ms Greening replaced by Patrick McLoughlin and Mike Penning by Stephen Hammond. I shall be writing to both ministers, asking to see them, personally, and inviting them down to meet and listen to all those involved in SAR in South Dorset.

62. Finally, a newly launched e-petition on the Government website had attracted over 10,500 signatories in a month. It can be found at: