On March 26 this year the UK’s Department for Transport announced that Bristow Helicopters (part of the U.S.-based Bristow Group) had won the contract to provide a search and rescue helicopter service for the whole of the UK. The 10-year, £1.6 billion contract will officially begin implementation in April 2015, and will be fully in place by 2017, managed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
Controversial plans to privatize the UK’s SAR operations were first announced in 2006, resulting in Soteria SAR being announced as preferred bidder in February 2010, based on its proposal to operate 24 Sikorsky S-92s. However, in February 2011, and just days away from contract signature, the Soteria consortium of CHC Helicopter, Thales and Sikorsky admitted that it had access to commercially sensitive information, and the contract was halted. Later in the month the bidding process was reopened, leading to the award this spring.
This March’s announcement finally spells the end for the UK’s military SAR force, which currently operates the aging Westland Sea King in both RAF and Royal Navy colors. Established in 1941 as the Air-Sea Rescue service, the RAF’s first SAR operation was initiated to retrieve downed airmen from British waters. The advent of the helicopter in the post-war years allowed it to flourish as a nationwide organization for both civilian and military users, and the RAF’s yellow-painted machines, supplemented by Royal Navy’s red-paneled helicopters, became familiar sights in the UK’s mountainous and coastal regions. However, from the 1980s civilian contractors have been conducting some UK SAR operations on behalf of the MCA.
While the end of military SAR coverage has brought dismay to some, the UK DfT contends that, while the number of helicopters is reduced, their improved capabilities and strategic locations will improve the service. For instance, the department stated that at present only 70 percent of the nation’s high- and very high-risk areas are reachable within 30 minutes, but under the new contract that figure rises to 85 percent. Average response flying time will decrease from 23 to 19 minutes.
Under the new contract Bristow will operate 22 new helicopters from 10 bases. To replace the fleet of nearly 40 Sea Kings the company is turning to the two manufacturers that were inherently linked with the Sea King: Sikorsky, and its UK licensee AgustaWestland. The U.S. manufacturer is providing 11 S-92s, which will operate from Caernafon, Humberside, Newquay, Sumburgh and Stornoway. The company is also establishing a supply hub at Aberdeen, to support not only the SAR force but also other S-92s operating in the region. AgustaWestland, meanwhile, has been contracted for 11 AW189s, which are being built in the UK at Yeovil and will be based at Inverness, Lee-on-Solent, Manston, Prestwick and St. Athan.
Two helicopters will be operational at each of the 10 bases, with one aircraft of each type under maintenance or held in reserve. For major emergencies Bristow has stated that it could reposition at least seven helicopters to any location at short notice and still maintain nationwide cover. As well as new helicopters, Bristow is also building new SAR facilities at nine of the bases, while overhauling the existing MCA base at Stornoway to match the standards of the others.
In the meantime, just before the Paris Air Show Bristow resumed its UK SAR operations after a six-year gap. From 1983 the company had operated S-61s on behalf of the MCA at the bases at Sumburgh and Stornoway in Scotland, and Portland and Lee-on-Solent in the south of England. These operations complemented those of the RAF and Royal Navy. From June 2007, however, Canadian company CHC Helicopter took over the MCA contract.
While CHC will continue to operate AgustaWestland AW139s from the two southern bases until implementation of the nationwide contract, Bristow won the interim UK Gap SAR contract last year to provide cover at the Scottish locations. The Bristow operation at Sumburgh went “live” with two S-92s on June 1, following crew training at Inverness, and Stornoway will follow suit on July 1, again with two S-92s. These locations will ultimately be rolled into the nationwide SAR program when it comes into effect. In the meantime, CHC Helicopter continues to provide SAR coverage for the Republic of Ireland, flying six S-61Ns from four bases.