POLICE Scotland was today condemned for its “baffling” decision to axe the use of civilian volunteer pilots who have been providing the Sky Watch service in missing people searches and other potentially life saving operations across the country.
The volunteer pilots of the UK Civil Air Patrol (UKCAP) - also known as Sky Watch - have been providing aerial support to the emergency services since being originally formed in Yorkshire in 2000.
Scotland has two operational units, the Highland Civil Air Patrol with aircraft based at Inverness, Kirkwall, Lossiemouth, Peterhead and Plockton, and the Lowland Unit which is centred on Perth airfield but also has aircraft operating from Leuchars, Fife, Kingsmuir and East Fortune airfields.
But the civilian volunteers have now been told that their services are no longer required by the new national police force in Scotland as the air support unit previously operated by the Strathclyde force is now available nationwide.
Bernard Higgins, the Assistant Chief Constable of Police Scotland said: “The UK Civil Air Patrol ‘Skywatch’ is a volunteer programme and not a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week national resource.
“Since the start of Police Scotland, the Air Support Unit has become a Scotland-wide resource with specially-trained officers using state of the art equipment which is available to assist in a variety of operations, including searching for missing people in remote areas across Scotland in a co-ordinated and operationally managed way. Police Scotland has considered all options available to them, and has come to the unavoidable conclusion that it should cease using the volunteer UK Civil Air Patrol.”
A spokesman for the Scottish arm of the UK Civil Air Patrol (UKAP) said in a statement that the volunteers had been left completely baffled by the decision.
He said: “Police Scotland has recently announced that it will no longer request the assets of the UK Civil Air Patrol in any capacity. This, we believe, is due in principal to an erroneous interpretation of the UK Air navigation Order.” The Order regulates aviation within the UK and governs the use of aircraft involved on any flight in the service of a police authority.
The spokesman said: “The UKCAP has been well aware of this legislation since its inception. It has always been at pains to completely exclude itself from falling into any category that could possibly be interpreted as being ‘in the service of a police authority’. The UKCAP is not paid by Police Scotland, neither does the UKCAP have any contract with Police Scotland, neither does the UKCAP have any obligations of any kind towards PS, neither do PS have any obligations towards the UKCAP. All flights are entirely private and under the sole control of the pilot.”
He continued: “UKCAP exists to primarily support the community and not the police. UKCAP is therefore no more ’in the service of a police authority’ than are any other independent members of the public who may be casually requested to search their gardens or outbuildings and generally keep and eye out for a missing person – a situation that is fairly common.”
And he claimed: “It is the community that may suffer as a direct result this baffling misinterpretation and we must all hope that alternative means of activation will continue to occur, such as a request for UKCAP assistance direct from the relatives of missing persons or as part of UK Search and Rescue, to which the UKCAP remains declared. “
The spokesman continued: “ It should also be noted that other police forces do not share the Police Scotland (PS) view and neither did the separate Scottish regional forces prior to the merger. UKCAP are patiently engaging in a process to reverse this move by PS which is responsible for an area in which every possible search asset is vital and over which one single police helicopter cannot possibly provide adequate cover. UKCAP would hope that the public will help by questioning this new policy of exclusion and voice support for its reversal. “
Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, also condemned the decision to axe the service provided the band of “Good Samaritans.”
He said: “I know that my local police service worked closely with Sky Watch before the creation of a single force and they had a number of successes. The fact that policing is now being controlled from Edinburgh does not change the fact that these volunteers have a genuine contribution to make across Scotland. This is a valuable resource that does not cost the taxpayer a penny.
“If there are compelling operational reasons for this decision then we need to hear them. But on the face of it, Police Scotland’s decision to cut links with these Good Samaritans is difficult to comprehend.”
The civilian volunteers of Sky Watch provide aircraft for air searches and eye in the sky cover at major events. A spokesman said: “Missing persons, vehicles, equipment, boats, livestock, downed aircraft have all been located from the air by the UKCAP.
“Aircraft are particularly useful for searching rivers and river banks, reed beds, moorland, scrubland, railway lines, ravines, loch and field margins, open undulating spaces - all of which are very time and manpower consuming to search from the ground. As well as a great deal of effort and cost, huge amounts of time can be saved. Time is nearly always a critical factor in the survival of missing persons.”