Conclusion in sight for UK’s SAR competition

 - June 3, 2009, 10:02 AM

Selection of a preferred bidder could emerge before the end of this year in the UK’s search-and-rescue helicopter (SAR-H) procurement process, which aims to replace the country’s existing mix of military and contractor-operated helicopters with new machines operated by a single commercial consortium under a private finance initiative (PFI) contract.

The two groups still vying for the contract recently revealed their choice
of platform. The AirKnight teaming of Lockheed Martin, VT Group and British International Helicopters is proposing the Eurocopter EC 225, while the rival Soteria consortium of CHC Helicopter, Thales UK and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has opted for the Sikorsky S-92.

A third team, UK Air Rescue, formed initially by Bristow Helicopters, Serco and FB Heliservices and joined subsequently by AgustaWestland, withdrew last year, citing unspecified commercial reasons for bowing out. It had been expected to offer the AW101, probably in combination with a smaller type, but the other bidders’ selection of a single helicopter suggests the option of a mixed fleet might have been ruled out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Ministry of Defence, which are managing the SAR-H program.

The winning bidder’s machines will replace the 30 search-and-rescue Sea Kings operated by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy from eight bases. Helicopters at
four other locations are operated under a five-year interim contract by CHC, which currently deploys S-92s at the northern Scottish bases of Sumburgh and Stornoway and AW139s at two bases on the south coast of England. The SAR-H contract is due to start in 2012 and run for up to 30 years at a cost of at least £3 billion ($4.5 billion).

Revealing his team’s choice of platform, Soteria bid director David Rae said it was “absolutely confident that the S-92 is the right aircraft for this new era in UK SAR services.” The type is specifically configured for SAR operations, he said: “It has already established an excellent track record and possesses the power, speed and technological capabilities to deliver SAR services in the most testing of conditions.”

CHC says its S-92s have proved extremely successful in what it describes as “the most challenging environment that the UK has to offer.” They have been called out more than 300 times and recorded availability levels of better than 98 percent.

AirKnight bid director Tom Gordon pointed to the EC 225’s ability to carry 12 or more casualties and fly more than 500 miles unrefueled, and the provision of doors either side of the cabin to make casualty recovery easier. “It has an outstanding safety and service record, was initially designed for the demands of search-and-rescue missions, and is extremely reliable,” he said.

An AirKnight spokesman said the two teams are engaged in an ongoing “competitive dialogue” with the MCA/MoD. A new technical tender is due to be submitted this month, followed by a best and final financial proposal later in the summer, with selection of the preferred bidder possible before the end of the year.