Highlands & Islands

Search and rescue contractors face night goggle issue

Maritime and Coastguard Agency helicopter pilot. Pic: Jon Nash/MCA
Image caption Coastguard crews can fly at night but without night vision goggles

Contractors taking over search and rescue duties will need to get permission to use a specialist piece of equipment, BBC Scotland has learned.

Under UK government plans, the RAF and Royal Navy are expected give up providing the helicopter cover by 2016.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has confirmed the new civilian operators would have to apply for permission to use night vision goggles (NVG).

Mountain rescuers said NVG were an essential tool in night-time incidents.

They said the goggles were used to good effect by the military crews on mountain rescues.

A civilian contractor already operates helicopters for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and has permission to fly at night, but is not permitted to use NVG.

Police helicopter crews do have the necessary permission for the gear.

Mountain rescuers have told the BBC News Scotland website that, while saddened by the withdrawal of the military, they had full confidence in the skills of civilian pilots and crews.

Plans to replace an ageing fleet of Sea King helicopters with modern machines as part of the UK government's plans was also welcomed.

However, the rescuers said it was essential the civilian crews were given access to all the equipment they would need - particularly NVG - and time to train in their use before RAF and Royal Navy crews were stood down.

They said NVG - dubbed "Gucci gear" by military personnel in reference to their high quality - were crucial during mountain rescues made during short winter days, or that dragged on into hours of darkness.

David "Heavy" Whalley, a former RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team leader, said training in the use of the goggles would take time.

He said: "The coastguards do not have an NVG capability and I pray that the contract covers this aspect as civilian helicopters have to apply to CAA rules.

"I was involved in the night vision work with the Sea Kings and it was a hard process. It will take a lot of training for the new crews."

Mr Whalley said modern helicopters were badly needed, but he added that he would be sad to see an end to the military's involvement in search and rescue.

The CAA said permission for use of NVG was unconnected to the contracts being offered by the UK government.

However, a spokesman added that an operator could apply at any time to use the equipment.

He said: "At the moment only police air support units use NVG.

Image caption Military Sea Kings are to be withdrawn from service in 2016

"The coastguard agency's civilian contractors can operate over land at night but they will be doing so without NVG.

"Using NVG obviously enhances the safe operation of helicopters at night and so the operator may decide not to fly over land without NVG."

The Department for Transport has sought bids to run MCA helicopter search and rescue services and to take over cover provided by the military.

A spokeswoman said the process of choosing an operator, or operators, would be rigorous.

She said: "The new service provider will be required to demonstrate how they will meet key search and rescue requirements during the procurement process.

"As part of this process, negotiations with bidders will take place which will cover a wide range of technical capabilities, as well as training provision."

The spokeswoman added: "We expect to sign contracts with the new provider, or providers, in early 2013, enabling the winning bidder to commence operations during 2015 and ensure the Ministry of Defence can withdraw from search and rescue and retire the Sea Kings by March 2016, as planned.

"The bidder will assume responsibility for the current MCA capability during 2017."

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