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Volunteers offer new help from the skies

PUBLISHED: 11:38 21 August 2010 | UPDATED: 11:57 16 September 2010

LIFE or death searches for missing persons and off-coast environmental disasters are just some of the things a new air-based service taking off from Ludham airfield may have to help with.

LIFE or death searches for missing persons and off-coast environmental disasters are just some of the things a new air-based service taking off from Ludham airfield may have to help with.

The site will play host to pilots who are part of the national Skywatch air patrol, meaning they volunteer to fly their craft to assist the emergency services.

And alongside Priory Farm, near Diss, and Felthorpe, it is one of three take-off points for the national scheme which was launched in Norfolk on Tuesday.

John Elliot, 70, used to fly search and rescue in a Shackleton in the RAF, but is now one of the pilots who will fly his autogyro from Ludham. Having been involved with Skywatch in Suffolk, he also helped bring the scheme to the area.

He said: “You get a lot of people with a background in the RAF, and some who fly Jumbos as their day job. It gives you another reason to be flying, whether you're looking for a lost child or someone with Alzheimer's.”

Those involved with Skywatch have to go out in pairs. One flies, the other keeps watch. The Ludham base will soon have three pilots and six pilots.

“When you're up there, I find that you're concentrating on doing your best,” said Mr Elliot.

With a presence in places including Kent and parts of Scotland, Skywatch is already the largest voluntary air observation service in Europe.

Ray Osborne, a unit chief pilot for Skywatch, said the system relied on services initially calling Skywatch.

A message or call will then be sent out to the locally based pilots, most of whom have at least 200 hours flight time on microlights and Cessnas.

“It's basically who is available at the time, and we should be able to provide help within 90 minutes of being asked.”

To join up, both pilot and observer must pass a series of six training exercises and search patterns, including a flight along the east coast.

For Great Yarmouth Coastguard liaison officer Bob Charles, the development is good news. He was helped in a search along the coast by a Beccles Skywatch group.

“They can't fly out far beyond the coast but they could help with any coastal pollution, and any search capability for any emergency service. I welcome it,” he said.


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