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Dorset MP Criticises Government's Incompetence At Plans To Ground Chopper

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8:14am 20th November 2012

Westminster has replied to a letter of support for Portland's Coastguard Helicopter.

A Commons Committee has written to the Transport Secretary calling for a rethink over plans to ground the chopper.

But the Department for Transport say a new fleet of faster helicopters would be "more reliable" in the long run.

South Dorset MP Richard Drax is now asking for more support from the Commons Committee to save the chopper.

While thanking Mrs Ellman and her committee for their strong criticism of the plans, Drax said that response from the Department for Transport was not reassuring.

 'I fear that we face Government intransigence at best and incompetence at worst,' he wrote,

'The fact that no one consulted at all on these plans is breathtaking.'

Saying that he was 'baffled' by the Department for Transport's statement defending its plans, Drax wrote,

'The evidence - and there is plenty of it - is totally the opposite.'

'I must repeat the most important point...that one helicopter - however modern and fast - can only be in one place at any one time. If, as happens now, both the Solent and Culdrose helicopters have been tasked simultaneously, we will never get the cover we need in time, especially when victims are in the water and have only minutes to stay conscious, certainly during the winter months.'

Drax also cited evidence from Dr Ian Mew, who had testified that life saving flights by the Portland helicopter were forced to break CAA rules 23 times in the last year in order to land critically ill victims at Dorchester hospital.

'It highlighted the SAR helicopter's additional role, to provide cover for the charity funded air ambulance, ' said Drax.

'Fundraisers are continually battling to keep the machine in the air and even when operational, it has severe limitations. It can't fly at night, it has no room inside to treat patients and it has no winch.'

Drax also reminded Mrs Ellman that those most involved with the operation of the helicopter had yet to be consulted.

'As my report - which you have - also indicates, those who are appropriately qualified to comment on the need for our helicopter are afraid to comment for fear of losing their jobs,' he wrote, 'This is quite extraordinary in what I thought was a free and democratic country. All witnesses must be protected, if needs be.'

Finally, Drax pointed out that the Portland base was an important refuelling point for Solent and Culdrose and that it is also responsible for SAR cover for the Channel islands.


Mrs Louise Ellman MP

House of Commons

London

SW1A 0AA

15 November, 2012

Dear Mrs Ellman

Portland SAR Helicopter

My purpose in writing to you is twofold. First, to thank you and your Committee for taking our evidence and then for acting on it. And, second, to follow up on the Department for Transport's (DfT) statement, following your letter to the Secretary of State.

We are all extremely grateful to the Committee for your support, which we hope will persuade the Government to relook at the whole issue of SAR cover, especially along our coastline.

I was baffled by the DfT's statement that: "A modern, faster fleet of helicopters operating from 10 full-time bases will provide a more reliable overall service that still meets the key search and rescue requirements and does not increase the overall risk of loss of life".

The evidence - and there is plenty of it - is totally the opposite. And, interestingly, we already have a fast, modern helicopter at Portland and there's nothing on the market at the moment which can beat it. The AW139 is perfect for the job, twin-engined, fast and manoeuvrable, and with small enough blades to enable it to hover close to our Jurassic coastline.
A spokesman for the DfT adds that their new, state-of-the-art helicopters at 10 bases "… will allow 85 per cent of very high, high and medium risk areas to be reached within half an hour … and average incident response times will drop from 23 minutes to 19".

This is blatantly untrue. Even on the Department's on analysis, flying time alone from Lee on Solent and Culdrose will be 25 minutes and 40 minutes, respectively. Add to that crew briefing, preparation and warming up the engines, a more realistic time would be 35-40 minutes and 50-55 minutes, respectively.

As my report - which you have - also indicates, those who are appropriately qualified to comment on the need for our helicopter are afraid to comment for fear of losing their jobs. This is quite extraordinary in what I thought was a free and democratic country. All witnesses must be protected, if needs be.

Dr Ian Mew's contribution was important as it highlighted the SAR helicopter's additional role, to provide cover for the charity-funded air ambulance. Fundraisers are continually battling to raise the money needed to keep the machine in the air and even when operational it has severe limitations. It can't fly at night, or over the sea, it has no room inside to treat patients and it has no winch, so pick-ups are confined to 'easy' locations, which is often not the case in Dorset, or along the south coast.

As we explained, the Department is not saving money by scrapping our helicopter. With each death costing c£1.7 million - DfT figure - only THREE lives saved would pay for our helicopter.

And, if you recall, Dr Mew said that the SAR helicopter had broken CAA rules 23 times because those patients needed urgent hospital attention. I know this is a back of an envelope figure, but multiply 23 x £1.7 million = c£39 million. Even using half that figure, the helicopter is still superb value for money.

The Portland base is an integral part of SAR cover along our coastline, providing not only an air asset, but a refuelling point for other helicopters. The loss of this facility alone would be very serious, leaving the Solent and Culdrose aircraft no option but to return to their bases to refuel, losing valuable search time.

I must repeat the most important point, I believe, is that one helicopter - however modern and fast - can only be in one place at any one time! If, as happens now, both the Solent and Culdrose helicopters have been tasked simultaneously, we will never get the cover we need in time, especially when victims are in the water and have only minutes to stay conscious, certainly during the winter months.

Finally, don't forget the Portland helicopter is also responsible for the Channel Islands. I wonder what they think of the Department's plans to axe it?  

Can I thank you and your Committee for taking the stand you have. We shall be looking to you for further support as I fear we face Government intransigence at best and incompetence at worst. The fact that no one consulted at all on these plans is breath-taking. Do please show this letter to all Committee members.

My warm regards and sincere thanks.

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