UK SAR debut for AW139

 - May 2, 2008, 6:35 AM

The second of three AgustaWestland AW139s that CHC Helicopter will use for search-and-rescue operations off the south coast of England on behalf of the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) was delivered to the agency’s Lee-on-
Solent base last month.

The new helicopters are due to replace Sikorsky S-61Ns operated by Bristow Helicopters by July. Two will provide 24-hour coverage at Lee; the third will supply daylight cover at Portland for the next five years while the MCA pursues its SAR-H plan to take over the provision of the UK’s entire search-and-rescue helicopter services beginning in 2012.

Although they are substantially smaller than the aircraft they will replace, the AW139s are “superbly designed and adapted for bringing casualties back,” said MCA chief executive Peter Cardy. “On the south coast there are typically a lot of rescues of small numbers from locations that are generally close at hand. This aircraft has the flexibility to do that.”

SAR operations in other parts of the country tend to involve longer distances and larger rescues.

Chief pilot Richard Norris said all but one of the eight pilots who will fly the new helicopters, along with rear crewmembers and engineers, have transferred from the Bristow operation. Conversion training was carried out at the AgustaWestland Training Academy in Sesto Calende, near Milan. The five-week course consisted of two weeks of ground school, two weeks on the simulator and one week on the aircraft itself. “It was quite a challenge moving from the S-61 with its 1960s technology, quite a step change,” said Norris. “But the training course at AgustaWestland is good, the simulator is good and we are fitted for the role now.”

The crew also includes a winch operator and winchman, and the aircraft is cleared for an unspecified number of survivors as long as they have a handhold, Norris said. The maximum number is yet to be determined. If the rescue involves too many people to be accommodated on board, Norris pointed out, the helicopter is just one of the rescue assets available. “In inshore waters there is almost always a lifeboat as well, and if the incident is in mid-Channel we could mobilize support from France and Belgium as well as the RAF base at Wattisham and the MCA helicopter from Portland.”

Some in the SAR community view the helicopter’s compact cabin–8.86 feet long, 6.89 feet wide and 4.66 feet high–as a shortcoming, but winchman paramedic Alf Kitwood said that not being able to stand up was not a problem. “Working on casualties in the back of the S-61 you’re on your knees anyway,” he said. “And on the S-61 you sometimes have to go to the back of the aircraft to get something, but on the AW139 everything is to hand.” The cabin has room for up to five seats or three seats with two stretchers.

The rear crew are being trained to full registered paramedic rather then the current advanced life support standard, which will mean carrying more equipment. They “love the bigger door,” Kitwood said. And those requiring rescue will benefit from the helicopter’s higher speed. “It means we’ll get there more quickly, get back more quickly and get them to the hospital more quickly.”

From the pilots’ point of view, Norris said, a big advantage of the AW139 over the S-61N is the additional power available from the digitally controlled Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-67Cs, particularly the single-engine hover capability. In its SAR role, the helicopter spends a good deal of time in the hover, and the potential for engine failure was always a consideration with the S-61. It will be far less of a worry with the AW139, he said.

The Honeywell Primus Epic cockpit’s multifunction display can show views from the Wescam MX-15i forward-looking infrared camera, with a map or radar overlay if required. A SkyTrac ISAT-100 Iridium-based satcom system provides automatic position reporting as well as voice and two-way text messaging, and a transponder for the automatic identification system (AIS) enables the position, course, speed and identity of the helicopter as well as surface vessels to be shown on AIS displays at the maritime rescue coordination centers. A Chelton 935-11 homes on signals from distress beacons. Other mission equipment includes dual Goodrich hoists and a Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun searchlight.

Norris said the aircraft can carry some 2,600 pounds of fuel and burns 905 to 925 pounds per hour, giving almost three hours’ endurance, while its 150-knot speed gives it a radius of action comparable to that of the S-61N. MCA figures show a maximum endurance with VFR reserves (20 minutes at cruise speed) and maximum auxiliary fuel of 163 minutes at the best cruise speed and 200 minutes at the speed for best endurance.

Overall, he said, the AW139 is “quick, maneuverable and powerful, with no problems at all in the hover.” It remains to be seen whether it is the right aircraft for the task, he added, “but we think it will do the job.”

SAR Contract Contenders
Cardy declined to comment on the SAR-H program, saying only, “We’ll get what we want.” Richard Parkes, director of technical services, said the current five-year contract will help establish the right aircraft for the follow-on program. “We think we’ve got this as right as it can be, but other solutions might emerge.” The SAR-H requirement has been framed in broad terms, he added. “For example, we don’t specify that the helicopter has to have a winch, but it has to be able to get somebody out of the water.”

Vancouver-headquartered CHC was awarded the five-year MCA contract at the end of 2006. The contract also covers the two most northerly bases of Sumburgh in the Shetland Isles and Stornoway in the Western Isles, where the new contractor is replacing pairs of Bristow-operated S-61s with S-92s. The company already provides search-and-rescue helicopter services in Ireland and Norway and, along with Thales UK, is a member of one of three consortia bidding for the SAR-H contract, which will also entail replacing the Westland Sea Kings operated at eight bases by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. In March the Royal Bank of Scotland joined the CHC/Thales team, which has been named Soteria after the Greek goddess of safety, deliverance and preservation from harm.

The Lee-on-Solent base occupies part of the former Royal Navy base, HMS Daedalus. Last year helicopters were called out 220 times from Lee and 196 times from Portland. The northern bases of Sumburgh and Stornoway logged 72 and 130 call-outs, respectively.

AW139s are used in the SAR role in Japan, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. AgustaWestland itself bid for the SAR-H contract before withdrawing as a sole prime last year and joining the UK Air Rescue consortium of Bristow, FB Heliservices and Serco in January. The other bidder is the Air Knight consortium, which includes Lockheed Martin UK, VT Aerospace and helicopter operator British International.