Three bidders competing for UK SAR work

 - February 27, 2008, 8:40 AM

Three teams bidding to take over the provision of UK search-and-rescue helicopter (SAR-H) services beginning in 2012 submitted their responses to the initial invitation to tender at the end of January and are embarking on a further round of dialogue before the program moves to the next selection stage.

The bidders, who are chasing a deal that could be worth as much as $10 billion over 30 years, represent a broad range of capabilities. Their track records also highlight the extent to which military flying and support in the UK, particularly of helicopters, has been contracted out to commercial operators.

Canada’s CHC, which is bidding in partnership with Thales UK, is introducing its own helicopters at four of the UK’s 12 SAR bases. Under a five-year contract awarded by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) at the end of last year it has deployed pairs of Sikorsky S-92s at the two most northerly bases of Sumburgh in the Shetland Isles and Stornoway in the Western Isles. It is due to introduce three AgustaWestland AW139s to the south coast bases of Lee on Solent and Portland this spring; Lee will have two and Portland, the only non-24-hour base, one.

CHC also provides SAR helicopter services to the Irish government using six Sikor- sky S-61Ns, and in the next 12 months is due to deploy three all-weather search-and-rescue Eurocopter EC 225s in support of Norwegian energy producer StatoilHydro’s North Sea operations. Thales UK provides more than 50 percent of the ground-based military flying training services used by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and manages more than 140 civilian facilities in the country.

The MCA contract was previously held by Bristow, operating S-61Ns. The company is now a member of the UK Air Rescue team led by services specialist Serco, which also includes FB Heliservices (FBH) and Agusta- Westland. FBH, its joint venture with Cobham, provides all the helicopters for the Defence Helicopter Flying School, trains more than 220 aircrew each year for the UK armed forces, and provides search-and-rescue training at RAF Valley.

AgustaWestland was one of four bidders from an original six that were down-selected in 2006, acting as prime contractor with Bond Aviation as a subcontractor. The company withdrew its bid last year, subsequently winning an MoD contract worth more than $900 million to extend its support for Sea Kings. The new contract covers depth maintenance and flight line support for the SAR Sea King fleet through the end of its life.

In January, the UK Air Rescue consortium disclosed that the manufacturer would be joining its team. The announcement highlighted the medium AW139 and long-range AW101 among what it describes as the most extensive range of modern SAR helicopters.

Lockheed Consortium
The third bidder is the Air Knight consortium of Lockheed Martin UK, VT Aerospace and helicopter operator British International. LMUK was system integrator for the Royal Navy Merlin Mk 1 version of the AW101, which achieved full operational capability last November, and is working on the $1.5 billion program to develop the Mk 2. British International carries out defense-related missions such as the recovery of targets used for Royal Air Force pilot training from the sea off Wales.

Like Thales, VT Aerospace’s parent, VT Group, is a subcontractor to AgustaWestland on its Sea King support contract. It will provide maintenance support to RAF and Royal Navy search-and-rescue Sea Kings under a contract worth nearly $80 million over the next five years. More than 200 current military posts will be outsourced to VT at seven RAF stations and one RN base.

With Lockheed Martin and Rolls-Royce, meanwhile, VT is part of the Ascent consortium that was selected in 2006 as training systems integrator for the MoD’s Military Flying Training System that will train future military aircrew. It is also a member of the AirTanker team negotiating to provide the RAF’s future air refueling capability.

None of the bidders was prepared to discuss the tender or its own submission beyond confirming that it had responded to the preliminary invitation to tender. The MCA and Ministry of Defence, which are jointly managing the SAR-H program, had little to add. “We have received the proposals from the bidders involved,” they said in a brief statement. “We are currently evaluating all the bids, and following the evaluation there will be a further stage of dialogue.”

However, before the program’s May 2006 launch the MoD and Department for Transport agreed that SAR-H would be run as a private finance initiative competition. A notice in the Official Journal of the European Union said the program could run for 20 to 30 years and be worth £3-5 billion. An outline plan in a presentation given to industry the following month envisioned completion of the competition by late next year, with lead in to the start of service at MCA bases in mid-2012.

One of the driving forces behind the plan is the need to replace the 30 search-and-rescue Sea Kings operated by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy from the eight non-MCA bases during the next 10 years. Their replacements must be able to launch within 15 minutes by day or 45 minutes at night and have the speed to reach all high-risk and most medium-risk areas within one hour.

Basing options are to use all or some of the existing bases or a combination of existing and new ones, and both military and civilian pilots will be employed since the MoD needs to retain SAR-experienced crews for deployment as part of expeditionary forces. The contractor will be required to provide operational conversion and recurrent training for military and civilian aircrew.