Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service
The Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service, or RAFMRS, provides the only search and rescue service that is available in all weathers in the UK. This service developed some of the earliest mountain rescue techniques which are now used all over the world. As well as dealing with plane crashes the service also rescues walkers and mountaineers who may become stuck or fall ill while they are in the mountains.
The RAFMRS was first set up during the Second World War in order to rescue pilots whose planes had come down over the mountains. Mountains in the UK are not particularly high compared to elsewhere in the world but they do pose some problems for rescuers. They still have high peaks and tall slopes which can make rescue attempts difficult. The temperatures on the top of the mountains have the potential to drop to a very low level, even when the altitude is not that high. Winds can reach up to 100mph and the conditions are made even worse if it is snowing at the same time. These conditions can be found at any time of the year including during the summer months.
One of the practices of mountain rescue that was put in place by the RAFMRS was the inclusion of a trained medical professional on board the helicopter that is used in the rescue attempt. This means that people who are injured can get medical attention immediately rather than having to wait until they get to a hospital.
Before the RAFMRS was established the arrangements for mountain rescue were quite ad-hoc and this meant that more time was often spent organising the rescue attempt than on the actual rescue. This sometimes meant that lives were lost which could have otherwise have been saved if they were reached in time.
After the war was over the whole organisation became more organised and they began to work with civilian authorities to provide a more co-ordinated response. Trained mountaineers joined the service which meant that rescues also became more efficient. During the 1950’s they also began to operate in RAF bases overseas. The team at RAF Nicosia in Cyprus dealt with two high profile crashes in Turkey during this time that were possibly a result of Cold War espionage. Teams were also based in Middle Eastern countries such as Hong Kong, Dubai and Yemen. These teams often worked alongside the British Army and they were often referred to as ‘Desert Rescue’.
In 1994 females were allowed to join the RAFMRS for the first time. Women weren’t allowed at all in the RAF for some time because of the physical requirements of the job. When the rules were changed there was a provision that women still had to pass the tests that were currently in place to ensure that they did have the physical fitness which was required. In terms of the RAFMRS women also have to prove that they meet the minimum requirements for their mountaineering skills.
Another aspect of the service that the RAFMRS offers is the recovery of remains after fatal air crashes. In the early days of the service it could take several months before all the remains were found and this led to some criticism of the service. Improvements to this process were made throughout the years. One of the biggest missions that the the RAFMRS has been involved in is the recovery of the remains of people that were aboard the Pan Am flight that was bombed above the village of Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988. The search for remains was carried out over a radius of many miles and four of the six teams that were in operation at the time were involved in this search.
All members of the RAFMRS are volunteers. In order to volunteer you have to be enlisted in the armed forces. Most training is carried out during special training days which take place in the mountains. There is a training syllabus which must be completed by every new recruit. This is includes practical training which will take place on the mountain and written exams to test knowledge. After the first level of training has been carried out members of the RAFMRS are known as ‘part trained’. They can then go onto other training which will allow them to progress through the ranks of the service. The next two positions which can be achieved are ‘trained’ and ‘party leader’. These positions also require both theoretical and practical training and examinations. Members of the RAFMRS are required to spend at least thirty weekends a year training in the mountains and even when they have qualified training is ongoing to make sure that all their skills and knowledge is always up to date. It is not unusual for current members to train alongside new recruits as the course will act as a refresher for those already serving with RAFMRS and those who are hoping to become part of the service can benefit by learning from their experience.
Today there are three bases for the RAFMRS throughout the United Kingdom. These are located in RAF Leeming in England, RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland and RAF Valley in Wales. RAF Valley is the administrative headquarters of the RAFMRS and all training is co-ordinated from here. In 2005 HRH Prince William spent two weeks working with the organisation as a helicopter pilot. He was serving in the RAF at the time. In 2015 the helicopter squadrons that would have attended rescues were disbanded and this aspect of the service was handed over to a private contractor. The rest of the service is still organised and administered by the RAF. The RAFMRS has been a crucial part of rescuing people who have found themselves in difficulties in mountains and other inaccessible areas and they have helped thousands of people since the service began. These rescues have not only been made in the UK but also in many other countries around the world and it is hoped that this service will continue to be offered for many years to come.