The Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service (RAFMRS) provides land rescue over the mountain areas of the United Kingdom. Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Teams (MRTs) were first organised during World War II to rescue aircrew from the large number of aircraft crashes then occurring on high ground. The practice at the time was to organise ad-hoc rescue parties from station medical sections and other ground personnel. Experience demonstrated that this could be dangerous. While the mountains of the United Kingdom are not very tall, they contain much formerly glaciated terrain with steep cliffs, talus slopes, high peaks and cirque basins, and generally experience a sub-Arctic climate at relatively low altitudes. Snow and high winds, sometimes in excess of 100 mph (161 km/h), are possible any month of the year. Rescue operations in these conditions require personnel with specialized mountaineering training and equipment. The Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Teams are credited with some of the earliest development of mountain rescue techniques and teams in the United Kingdom and overseas. Despite potential team reductions under the current UK Coalition Government (2011), RAFMRS teams continue to contribute to life-saving and mountain safety.
RAF policy from the very early days of 1918 was for the station medical officer to attend all aircraft crashes as, initially at least, the low air speeds meant that many crashes were survivable and first aid would be given before the crews were moved either into Station Sick Quarters or a hospital. A single RAF medical officer, Flight Lieutenant George Desmond Graham (also known as "Doc" Graham), is credited with pressurising the Air Ministry into forming the RAF MRS. Graham was one of several RAF medical doctors who organized teams at RAF Llandwrog in North Wales in 1943, at RAF Millom (southern Lake District), and at Harpur Hill (Peak District), where Flt Lt (later Air Commodore) David Crichton performed a similar role. Graham's team rescued dozens of allied airmen from Snowdonia before Graham was posted to Burma, where he took part in an early pararescue operation (strikingly similar to one generally credited as the beginning of United States Air Force Pararescue), saving the life of a Royal Canadian Air Force navigator, Flying Officer W Prosser.
Shortly after the war the fledgling service was reorganized and retrained along professional grounds through an influx of trained mountaineers, including Sgt Hans Pick, a former Austrian Army Alpine instructor and Sergeant J R "Johnny" Lees, whose involvement with the service is recounted by author and mountain guide Gwen Moffat in her 1964 book about the early days of the service. Other notable early team leaders include Squadron Leader David Dattner OBE, Colin Pibworth, and John Hinde.
A mountain rescue operation is known as a "call-out." Particularly noteworthy call-outs include the extended search for the remains of the crew of Avro Lancaster TX 264 of No. 120 Squadron RAF, which crashed into Scotland's 1,010 metres (3,314 ft) Beinn Eighe on 1951-03-14. Recovering all the remains took several months, and led to public criticism of the fledgling service from mountaineering groups, which helped prod the RAF to provide specialized personnel, better training, and proper equipment. Less than a year later, an Aer Lingus Douglas Dakota crashed into a mountain near Porthmadog in Snowdonia with 23 people on board, and RAFMRS personnel recovered the remains.
Over the 1950s, the service became more professional and better coordinated with civilian authorities. Many noteworthy civilian volunteer mountain rescue teams in the UK began as RAFMRS "sub-units." Two air crashes high in the mountains of Turkey during the 1950s provided call-outs for the first of several overseas teams of the RAFMRS, based at RAF Nicosia in Cyprus. Both crashes had a sense of Cold War espionage, involving secret nuclear papers and equipment. To this day the service's historians feel they lack all the details. Other overseas teams were based in Aden, Libya, Yemen, Dubai, Oman and Hong Kong. The middle eastern teams were characterized as "desert rescue," and British Army personnel were sometimes involved.
The RAF allowed female RAFMRS team members for the first time in 1994, when the then Inspector of Land Rescue, Squadron Leader Brian Canfer, tired of having to rationalize excluding women to a UK parliamentary all-party group, agreed to a trial of female volunteers. Advice from the Dutch fire service at the time was that they be accepted, but on utterly equal terms regarding physical fitness and mountaineering requirements.
Since their formation the teams have rescued thousands of civilian walkers and climbers and responded to hundreds of aircraft crashes. Perhaps the most famous call-out of all was for the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, also known as the Lockerbie Air Disaster. This terrorist incident resulted in the scattering of human remains over a wide swath of southern Scotland. The call-out involved four of the six teams then in existence and "stretched the personnel involved to the limits".
All RAF MRT members are volunteers. For reasons lost to history, RAFMRS team members are known as "M.R. troops" or just "troops." Traditionally, team membership is reserved for enlisted men and women; although officers may serve as either officers i/c (in charge) or as a Troop, this is not at all the same thing as being the team leader. That position is reserved for a senior NCO, generally a seasoned veteran. For some, service on a team is a primary duty, and they are known as the Permanent Staff or PS. For others, it is a part-time activity in addition to their normal RAF Trade or branch for which they are granted relief from other normal secondary duties, such as guard duty.
Most training is done "on the hill", the term for mountaineering training days. Only a minority pass the three-week trial period required to join. Once accepted, new troops are considered "novices." A "badge test" after the first year is the mark of a trained troop, and permits the wearing of the mountain rescue badge on the right fore-sleeve of dress uniform, one of only two special service badges recognized for RAF enlisted men, the other being the badge of a qualified marksman. Walking, mountain navigation, high-angle rescue techniques, rock climbing, and winter mountaineering are the primary training activities, which are carried out in all weathers. A minority of troops practice fell running, a traditional country sport in northern England, and excellent training.
A regular troop can expect to spend upwards of a hundred days a year on the hill, which training makes the most seasoned RAFMRS personnel some of the fittest mountaineers in the world. Many Himalayan expeditions have been mounted, or troops and ex-troops have participated in other organizations' expeditions. In 1970, ex RAF Kinloss troop Ian Clough died when a serac collapsed on him while descending Annapurna on an expedition with Chris Bonington. Other sites for expeditions have included Alaska's Denali, Mt. Everest, and Antarctica, where troops have volunteered for British Antarctic Survey duties.
Each year for several decades, the service has run separate summer and winter mountaineering courses. The focus is on training lead climbers. USAF pararescue personnel from American air bases in England generally attend. A special course is held when needed every few years to train team leaders.
Current organization and deployment
After a recent consolidation, the RAFMRS today comprises four teams, based at RAF Valley in North Wales, RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss (now called RAF Lossiemouth MRT) in Scotland, and RAF Leeming in England. There is now a central headquarters administration, previously lacking, associated with the MRT at RAF Valley. Helicopter operations, frequently used in mountain rescue, are conducted in cooperation with No. 202 Squadron RAF and No. 22 Squadron RAF. These two squadrons, with the four remaining MRTs and headquarters, and the Rescue Coordination Centre at RAF Kinloss, comprise RAF Search and Rescue. HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, currently a member of RAF Search and Rescue at RAF Valley, spent two weeks working with RAF Mountain Rescue in 2005, and Buckingham Palace cites this as background to his later decision to become the Patron of Mountain Rescue England and Wales.
In a recent UK Government defence review, the MRT at RAF Kinloss was threatened with closure. However the MRT remains at the Kinloss Barracks and has been renamed RAF Lossiemouth MRT and as such will draw staff from the nearby RAF station.
Awards and decorations
The following major UK Forces decorations have been awarded to past and serving members of the RAFMRS:
George Medal (The UK's most important award for non-combat heroism):
- Flt Sgt J R Lees, for Amphitheatre Buttress rescue, 1958
Officer of the Order of the British Empire OBE
Flt Lt David Dattner 1954
- Flt Lt G Graham, for services to mountain rescue, 1943
- Flt Lt D Crichton, for services to mountain rescue, 1946
- Flt Lt R Robertson, for Mt Suphan (Turkey) call-out, 1959
- Sqn Ldr J Sims, for services to mountain rescue, 1967
- Sqn Ldr G Blackburn, for services to mountain rescue, 1984
- Sqn Ldr W Gault, for Lockerbie Air Disaster, 1989
- Flt Sgt J A F Coull FRGS, for services to mountain rescue, 2001
- Flt Sgt D Whalley, for services to mountain rescue, 2002
- Cpl G McTigue, for services to mountain rescue, 1943
- SAC M Brown, for Beinn Eighe call-out, 1952
- Cpl C D Austin, for services to mountain rescue, 1952
- Sgt J Mooring, for services to mountain rescue, 1958
- Flt Sgt H Appleby, for Mt Suphan (Turkey) call-out, 1959
- Sgt J Emmerson, for Mt Suphan (Turkey) call-out, 1959
- SAC G Murphy, for Mt Suphan (Turkey) call-out, 1959
- Sgt J Steed, for services to mountain rescue, 1960
- Flt Sgt JR Lees, for services to mountain rescue, 1962
- Flt Sgt W Brankin, for services to mountain rescue, 1963
- Sgt G Patterson, for Wadi Mukeiras call-out, 1959
- Chf Tech J Hinde, for services to mountain rescue, 1964
- Sgt P McGowan, for services to mountain rescue, 1971
- Cpl C Pibworth, for services to mountain rescue and desert rescue, 1972
- Flt Sgt J Tunnah, for services to mountain rescue, 1972
- Flt Sgt G Bruce, for services to mountain rescue and Elephant Island Expedition, 1973
- Flt Sgt H Oldham, for services to mountain rescue, 1976
- Flt Sgt R Sefton, for services to mountain rescue, 1977
- Flt Sgt J Baines, for services to mountain rescue, 1979
- Chf Tech J Craig, for services to mountain rescue, 1979
- Flt Sgt A Haveron, for services to mountain rescue, 1984
- Flt Sgt D Shanks, for services to mountain rescue, 1986
- Flt Sgt K Taylor, for services to mountain rescue, 1987
- Flt Sgt P Weatherill, for services to mountain rescue, 1987
- Flt Sgt D Whalley, for services to mountain rescue, 1992
- Flt Sgt P Kirkpatrick, for services to mountain rescue, 1993
- SAC G Hercod, for Mt Suphan (Turkey) call-out, 1959
- Flt Sgt G Bruce, call out for missing school party on Cairngorms, 1971
- Sgt W Batson, for Lockerbie Air Disaster, 1989
- Sgt P Winn, for Lockerbie Air Disaster, 1989
- Flt Sgt D Whalley, for Lockerbie Air Disaster, 1989
- Card, Frank (1993). Whensoever: Fifty Years of the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service. The Earnest Press.
- RAF Search and Rescue
- Moffat, Gwen (1963). Two Star Red. Hodder & Stoughton.
- Training Handbook for RAF Mountain Rescue Teams. Ministry of Defence (UK).
- The Royal Family > HRH The Prince of Wales > Prince William
- Concerns over coastguard cuts | SNP - Scottish National Party Archived 11 February 2011 at WebCite
- Earl, David W (1999). All In a Day's Work: RAF Mountain Rescue in Snowdonia, 1944-46. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. ISBN 978-0-86381-554-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Doylerush, Edward (1994). The Legend of Llandwrog: The Story of an Airfield and the Birth of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service. Midland Publishing. ISBN 978-0-904597-88-2 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- MacInnes, Hamish (1979). Call-out: Mountain Rescue. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-0-14-004298-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Thomson, Ian (1993). The Black Cloud: Scottish Mountain Misadventures 1928-1966. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-948153-20-4 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Beaver, Paul; Berriff, Paul (1990). Rescue: True-life Drama of Royal Air Force Search and Rescue. Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 978-1-85260-291-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].