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Pilots ready to be eyes in the sky

PUBLISHED: 10:37 26 May 2009 | UPDATED: 08:13 01 August 2010

LIGHT aircraft pilots who have pledged to volunteer their time and expertise to help the emergency services with search operations throughout Norfolk and Suffolk celebrated the opening of their unit on Friday, May 22.

LIGHT aircraft pilots who have pledged to volunteer their time and expertise to help the emergency services with search operations throughout Norfolk and Suffolk celebrated the opening of their unit on Friday, May 22.

The Beccles base of Sky Watch is one of just 19 units across the UK from where private pilots provide eyes from the skies to assist the Coastguard and police with searches.

Senior pilot at Beccles John Elliot said the volunteers aim to have at least one crew available 365 days a year during daylight hours who could be at the airfield within an hour.

Flying legend Ken Wallis, who famously designed and built Little Nellie and doubled as 007 in You Only Live Twice, flew from his home near Dereham in his self-built autogyro to be at the official opening at Beccles Airfield.

The 93-year-old, who is honorary president of Sky Watch, said: “I think it's absolutely wonderful - it's a very worthwhile project. Certainly it's a useful to be able to call and ask people to get in the air to search for a missing child.”

He added: “I think most people who fly like to have a reason to do so.”

Not content with starting out as the only Sky Watch unit in East Anglia, the Beccles pilots have gone one step further by installing a SkyMap GPS in each of their aircraft that enable them to share information with base via an on-screen map.

In addition, Beccles pilot Joe Marden designed and created a map reading training package, saying he hoped it would be used to train observers and pilots involved in the scheme nationwide, as Sky Watch does not run a course.

“People don't realise the expertise this unit has,” he said. “We have got a lot of experience here. It can be used to great effect.”

Volunteers were put to the test last week for the second time, when crews helped with a coastline search for Paul Powell, the former headteacher of Loddon Junior School whose body was later found near railway tracks in Norwich.

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