New addition to region's air search service

Victoria NichollsThe 'unused eyes' of light aircraft pilots roaming the Norfolk and Suffolk skies will aid the emergency services in search and rescue missions for the first time.Victoria Nicholls

The "unused eyes" of light aircraft pilots roaming the Norfolk and Suffolk skies are to aid the emergency services in search and rescue missions for the first time.

Volunteers at Sky Watch, a new unit based at Beccles Airfield, will be on hand to help with coastguard and police search operations across the two counties and along the coastline.

Kevin Duffy, a flying instructor based at the airfield and Sky Watch response pilot, said it made sense to take advantage of "unused eyes".

He said a crew could usually be scrambled in a matter of minutes, as many of the volunteers are based at the airfield.

"If they launch a lifeboat from Lowestoft to get down to Southwold it's going to take them 20 or 30 minutes, whereas we can have the complete area covered in less time than that," he said. "We can be out of here in five minutes."

Mr Duffy said six pilots with their own light aircraft at Beccles and seven observers had signed up.

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Volunteer observers for the Sky Watch Civil Air Patrol, which has more than 20 bases across the country, are trained in map-reading, basic flying skills and search techniques.

Senior pilot for Sky Watch in Beccles, John Elliot, said the initiative would come into its own in searches of Norfolk and Suffolk's expanses of marshland and waterways, which could be searched in a "fraction of the time" of land-based services. Pilots will venture no more than two miles out to sea and search only in daylight hours.

"It's giving us a chance to put something back in," he said. "We all love flying and I think we all realise how lucky we are to be able to do it, so it's being able to use the skills we've got to help the emergency services. It gives us a reason to fly."

Even before the unit's official launch on May 22, its volunteers took over the search from the police helicopter for a spell when 19-year-old Daniel Hannant went missing after a night out with friends in Southwold in March.

The new service will supplement the ground-based volunteer organisa-tion Sulsar (Suffolk Lowland Search and Rescue) that helped in the same operation, and its Norfolk counterpart Norlsar.

Colin Tomlinson, from Yarmouth Coastguard, said that working on the same radio frequency meant that information could be shared easily, and that although the Coastguard would not call pilots out, it would use them for information gathering if they were already in the skies.

To find out about volunteering, call Mr Duffy on 07720 267113.

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