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Search and Rescue within the Royal Netherlands Air Force

By:   Joan le Poole |

On January 1, 2015 the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) retired the Agusta Bell AB-412 SP SAR helicopters. On January 15 the 303 SAR squadron was disbanded after 55 years of service. Naviation was invited to report on the military ceremony. Joan took this opportunity to look back into the history of Search and Rescue in the Royal Netherlands Air Force. 

History
In 1959 the RNLAF established an Sea Air Rescue unit within the 298 squadron, based at Ypenburg airbase. Main task of the unit was Sea Air Rescue (SAR). Another task was the Tactical Air Rescue in (TAR) war situations.  That time the unit flew the Alouette II helicopter.

On April 27, 1959, the Alouette II stood standby at the island Vlieland for the first time. Vlieland was chosen because of the Cornfield shooting range at same island and the Jackpot shooting range at the nearby island Terschelling. That day the helicopter had to scramble already when two F-84 Thunderstreaks crashed. One of the pilots ejected over land and was flown back to Leeuwarden airbase by the Allouette.

In 1960 two Alouette II SAR helicopters were deployed to Biak, Netherlands New Guinea. The helicopters were deployed after the air force deployed 12 Hawker Hunter jets as an answer to increased tensions between the Netherlands and Indonesia. At the end of 1961 the helicopters came back after handing over New Guinea to Indonesia.

The Alouette II was replaced by the Alouette III in 1967. A year later the unit relocated to Soesterberg airbase. The unit got additional tasks as photo flights and transport of the Royal Family. During the first decades the SAR task was important, as “not only the air force operated more aircraft, but also technical failures were no exception”, according to major Ed van Scherpenzeel, the 17th and last commander of the 303 squadron.   

In 1977 the unit was relocated to Leeuwarden airbase. In February 1994 the first of three Agusta AB412 SP helicopters arrived at Leeuwarden to replace the Alouette III. In 1998 the SAR unit became officially the RNLAF 303 SAR squadron, operating under the motto ‘Servans in periculo’, which means ‘serving in emergency'. The squadron had enough capacity, besides its SAR task, to transport patients form the Wadden islands to the Dutch mainland. This became another 24/7 task of the unit.

Besides its military task the 303 squadron also assisted during national disasters and incidents. For example the rescue of the Korean crew from the burning chemical tanker Shiokaze in 1993. Many other sailors have been rescued by the 303 SAR squadron.


Joan le Poole - Naviation-2189

For many years this AB412SP has been the workhorse of the Royal Netherlands Air Force


The end of the 303 SAR squadron
On January 1, 2015 at 12.00 pm 303 squadron officially ceased all operations. The last operational flight was flown on New Year's Eve, when a patient was flown from the island Terschelling to the mainland. With this the counter in the 303 squadron building stopped at 5459 flights flown in the past 55 years of Search and Rescue operations in the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

During a ceremony held in the hangar of the 303 squadron the squadron was decommissioned on January 15. The ceremony included speeches of the Commandant Luchtstrijdkrachten (C-LSK, air force commander) Lieutenant-General Alexander Schnitger, of the commander of the Dutch Defence Helicopter Command, Commodore Jan Willem Westerbeek, and of major Ed van Scherpenzeel, the last commander of the 303 SAR squadron. The unit received the RNLAF Medal of Honour. It was the first time an unit got this medal. The 303 SAR squadron was officially decommissioned  when the squadron flag was handed over to the C-LSK. After the ceremony an AB412 flew a final flyby which marked the end of an era.

Future
After the retirement of the SH14D Lynx the initial plan was to operate the NH90 helicopters of the Defence Helicopter Command in the SAR role. However, several issues with this helicopter caused a delay in taking over the SAR role. As a temporary solution the SAR task is carried out by a civil company, Noordzee Helicopters Vlaanderen (NHV).

With the disappearance of the AB412 from the Dutch skies the residual capacity for transportation of patients disappeared. The RNLAF is responsible to execute this task until another party takes it over. For now two Cougar helicopters of the 300 squadron from Gilze-Rijen airbase, will operate from Leeuwarden airbase to fulfill this task.

Naviation would like to thank the RNLAF for its hospitality.