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Plea for Holyrood to fund civilian rescue helicopter

A MOUNTAIN rescue leader has called for ministers to fund a civilian rescue helicopter after the deaths of five climbers in the Highlands over the past week.

ON CALL: The mountain rescue team in Fort William is forced to rely on helicopters from the Royal Navy in Prestwick and the RAF in Lossiemouth. Picture: Reuters
ON CALL: The mountain rescue team in Fort William is forced to rely on helicopters from the Royal Navy in Prestwick and the RAF in Lossiemouth. Picture: Reuters

John Grieve, whose Glencoe team has saved many lives, said a helicopter is needed permanently in Fort William because "every second counts" in saving lives.

The team, along with Fort William mountain rescue, has to rely on search and rescue helicopters from the Royal Navy at Prestwick and the RAF at Lossiemouth.

He spoke after climber Ben St Joseph, 22, plunged 300ft to his death on Ben Nevis on Saturday, a week after the deaths of Dr Rachel Majumdar, Chris Bell, Una Finnegan and Tom Chesters, who fell 1000ft down Bidean nam Bian on January 19.

The helicopter was in the area and airlifted a 24-year-old woman from the Durham area to hospital. She was reported to be recovering in Glasgow's Southern General Hospital.

Mr Grieve said: "It just happened the Royal Navy helicopter was in the area. Normally, it would take an hour to get one here from Prestwick or Lossiemouth and up to an hour-and-a-half at night.

"When there is an avalanche every minute counts to get people on to the hill to search for survivors in the snow and get the injured to hospital.

"There is a dramatic graph that shows the rate of survival under snow. If you can get people out in 15 minutes or so, they have a real chance.

"We could do that with a helicopter in Fort William.

Glencoe and Lochaber Mountain rescue teams are the busiest of the 27 Scottish teams. Between them, they undertake half of all mountain rescues in the country and 70% to 80% of all land-based search and rescue in Scotland are within 30 minutes of them by helicopter. Mr Grieve said about 80% of Prestwick's call-outs last year were land-based, although the helicopters there are set up for maritime rescue.

He added: "Land-based search and rescue is a responsibility of the Scottish Government, although Prestwick and Lossie teams are financed from Westminster. So really Scotland should be providing this service, regardless of the UK provision."

Bond and Bristow are thought to be the main contenders for a new contract search and rescue contract from the UK Department of Transport with an announcement expected soon.

But Mr Grieve said that, under the new arrangement, the aircraft is likely to be based at Aberdeen and Glasgow airports.

He added: "If we had an aircraft in Fort William it would have been here in less than 10 minutes.

"Within half-an-hour it would be in the Cairngorms, Skye, the Oban area, Bridge of Orchy, Arrochar, which would cover virtually all the real mountain rescues.

"It would also be available for other emergency civilian work, on a general civil protection principle as operated in most other European countries."

The Lochaber team is supportive and is in discussion with the Highland Council over the purchase and development of a site as a helipad, as a first step towards a community resilience resource to be used by the mountain rescue teams, the air ambulance and others.

A Scottish Government spokesman said it was monitoring the tendering process to ensure it meets Scotland's needs.

He said: "We continue to engage with the UK Government to ensure it will provide and improve upon the services it is responsible for in search-and-rescue helicopter provision across the UK. While supporting mountain rescue is a key aspect of current demand, it must also be acknowledged that as a UK search-and-rescue asset, the helicopter fleet exists to support other types of incident and other demand and must therefore be configured to meet a variety of circumstances.

"The most important thing is to ensure the right helicopter with the right capability is deployed to the right job at the right time."

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