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Suffolk’s only Search and Rescue (SAR) base at Wattisham Airfield will close after the Government signed a contract with a private firm to provide the service.

The £1.6 billion deal with Bristow Helicopters Ltd will see 22 state-of-the-art helicopters operate from 10 locations around the UK.

This will enable the RAF and Royal Navy to withdraw from search and rescue activities in the UK and retire their fleet of Sea King SAR helicopters. The base at Wattisham, which has provided the service for more than 70 years, will be moved to Manston in Kent.

An RAF spokesman said the crews involved would be moved to different roles in the military.

He said: “We wouldn’t make our crews redundant because they are in the military and we have roles for them.

“If however they have served in SAR for ten years and wanted to continue we would look at a managed transistion - where they would leave the military and join the SAR crews, if they got the job, bringing continuity and experience to the role.

“The RAF have been doing search and rescue for 70 years and to be fair it is not an area we really have much use for - we are just helping you guys out.

“A combat SAR consists of fighters and apaches providing cover, various aerial assets providing intellegence and a couple of chinooks swooping in, strapping the guy up and flying out. That is not really the place for a yellow helicopter with a wire down the side.”

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “With 24 years of experience providing search and rescue helicopter services in the UK, the public can have confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first class service with state of the art helicopters.”

Mike Imlach, Bristow Helicopters European Business Unit Director said: “The award of this contract is a great success for Bristow Helicopters Ltd and a huge endorsement of our reputation for excellence in Search and Rescue.”