Fight To Save Portland Rescue Helicopter

The South Dorset MP has met with David Cameron about the scrapping of the Portland search and rescue helicopter in 2017.

Richard Drax said the PM "listened to what we had to say and he seemed impressed with the statistical evidence we produced. He was particularly interested in the points made about how many rescue's the helicopter made around Portland in 2011."

Mr. Drax added: "The Prime Minister said he will speak with the Secretary of State for Transport next week -before we speak to her on Wednesday 18th January."

Oliver Letwin will join Mr. Drax at the meeting with Justine Greening to discuss the proposal.

"We believe the DfT analysis is wrong," he says, "Currently the plan is to station helicopters at regular intervals around our coastline."

"The problem is that incidents are not equally spaced. In 2011, 25% of all coastguard coordinated helicopter callouts were between the Brixham, Portland and Lee on Solent coastguard areas. The obvious corollary is that 25% of our helicopter assets should be stationed in those areas."

"In 2011, the Portland SAR flight alone dealt with 202 incidents within an average of 22 nautical miles. Our analysis shows that the nearest alternative helicopter in the new proposals would have needed to travel an average of 45nm to those same incidents."

"The resulting delay would inevitably, I am afraid, have made the searches longer, wider, more expensive, and less likely to succeed."

"In other words, this decision could cost lives. I dislike sounding the alarm but someone has to say it."

Drax is particularly concerned about recreational divers who flock to the area because of the clarity of the water and the good 'drift' dives available.

"Last year, 50 divers needed to be rescued off Portland,” he says. “Of those, 45 needed treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. It is critical that divers arrive at a decompression chamber within one hour of any diving accident. After that, the chances of permanent injury climb."

"The nearest chamber is in Poole, 15 minutes' flight time from Portland. It takes the Portland helicopter 10 minutes to reach a casualty. It would take the alternative helicopters proposed at least 35 minutes. Add that to the transfer time and you can see the problem."

Drax also points to the booming success of Portland Port 'the fastest growing new port in the country' as a reason to keep a helicopter there. 

"There are plans for a new ferry to France, a new shipyard and a possible offshore wind farm to build and maintain. Portland Port is also recognised by the coastguard as the first port of refuge for all shipping casualties and marine emergencies in the southwest seas."

"The Portland helicopter was invaluable in the rescue and salvage of the MS Napoli in 2007. Without it, we would have been in severe difficulties."

The DfT proposals are for the new SAR helicopter facilities, including those currently managed by the Navy and RAF, to be operated by civilian crews at 10 bases around the UK, rather than the current 12.

Portland is one of the two SAR helicopters scheduled to be axed; the other is at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland. 

Drax has promised to fight the proposal and has gathered powerful backing, including every emergency and maritime organization in the region.

"This is a bad decision, based upon faulty analysis,” he says, “We will do everything we can to change it."