HELICOPTER search and rescue missions in Scotland are to be severely

curtailed from next April after a drastic RAF cost-saving exercise which

will reduce bills by #3.5m.

Plans revealed yesterday show that the key rescue helicopter base at

RAF Leuchars in Fife is to be closed from April.

The announcement was greeted with dismay in Scotland. Mr Hamish

MacInnes, leader of Glencoe mountain rescue team, said: ''I am quite

convinced that in future people are going to die because Leuchars search

and rescue helicopters are being disbanded.''

However, Defence Minister Malcolm Rifkind denied that the closure of

the Leuchars unit, made up of Wessex helicopters which are now deemed

out of date, would put lives in danger.

A huge burden will fall upon RAF Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth, by

far already the busiest search and rescue station in the UK. Its

workload will almost certainly soar by at least 50% with no increase in

aircraft devoted to rescue operations.

Oil rig and fishery emergencies in the North Sea and mountain rescue

operations seem bound to suffer. This was made clear yesterday as the

Government unveiled plans for search and rescue in the UK.

The RAF is to deploy Sea King helicopters throughout the UK. To do

this, Wessex search and rescue teams will be disbanded, making a saving

of 37 air crew, 120 ground crew, and #3.5m. Shutting search and rescue

at Leuchars will save nine air crew.

Last year, Lossiemouth was by far the busiest air emergency service in

the UK with 224 call-outs. RAF Leuchars came fourth in the table with

161 emergency call-outs -- only five fewer than the base that came


In theory, the area Leuchars covered can be looked after by Royal Navy

Sea Kings from Prestwick and Sea Kings from RAF Boulmer in the Borders.

But in practice the main burden is much more likely to fall upon RAF


It is clear from a Government document, published immediately after

the announcement, that the RAF agonised most over the closure of the

Leuchars operation. It is equally evident from that document that cost

was paramount in the decision.

The document said: ''Now that the RAF is moving towards an all Sea

King SAR force, the costs involved in running an extra flight at

Leuchars would be significant, including the purchase of two new Sea

Kings, additional spares, running costs, and extra crews.

''This expenditure could not be justified by the operational

requirement, and retention of the flight is therefore no longer


''As an alternative to withdrawal of the Leuchars flight,

consideration was given to replacing the Wessex helicopters by

transferring the present Sea King SAR flight from RAF Boulmer. However,

the areas in the North Sea and off the Northumbrian coast which would

lie outside a one-hour response time after such a move are significant.

''The withdrawal of the Wessex flight will inevitably mean an increase

in the response time if helicopters are called to daytime incidents

close to the shore around RAF Leuchars.

''However, the response times will still be well within the hour, and

other civil SAR assets in the region, including RNLI lifeboats, will

continue to be able to mount a rapid and effect response to incidents

inshore and near the coast.''

Politicians from all the main parties reacted angrily yesterday to the

announcement. It was claimed lives would be put at risk and safety cover

in the East of Scotland reduced.

Mr Rifkind, en route to Westminister from the meeting of Nato

Ministers at Gleneagles, denied the closure would leave the East of

Scotland without effective cover.

He said: ''We are going to have a much more sophisticated service

relying on Sea King helicopters. Although the Wessex are very good

helicopters for the most part, they have not been able to be used for

night service. Therefore, there has been an inadequate service in some

areas as a result.

''Leuchars has not met all night-time search and rescue for quite some

time, and already this has had to be met from Lossiemouth.''

Mr Rifkind said he was absolutely satisfied that the search and rescue

requirements at present being met from Leuchars would be adequately

covered, as a result of the changes from Lossiemouth, Prestwick, and


He also rejected the claims of mountain rescue teams that lives would

be put at risk.

''This criticism cannot be justified. Mountain rescue by its very

nature tends to take place in appalling weather and there are cases

where Lossiemouth has had to be used rather than Leuchars,'' he said.

Coucillor Andrew Gilmour, Tory group leader on North-east Fife

District Council described the decision as short sighted and

ill-advised. He hoped pressure would be put on Mr Rifkind to reverse the

decision before it was too late.

Councillor John Macdougall, leader of the Labour administration on

Fife Regional Council, has asked Mr Rifkind to postpone the closure

until a meeting could be arranged to discuss the possible takeover of

the service by local authorities.

The regional council would welcome the opportunity to discuss this,

particularly the additional funding which he believed the Defence

Ministry would be prepared to make available for the delivery of the


Mr Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat MP for North-east Fife and the

party's Defence spokesman, said it was ''a slap in the face for all

those who have campaigned so hard to preserve the search and rescue

services at Leuchars''.

Labour's Defence spokesman, Dr David Clark, said: ''This short-term

cost cutting may cost lives.''