The Department for Transport (DfT) has signed a contract with Bristow Helicopters of Texas to provide search and rescue helicopter services in the UK for 10 years from 2015.
'This is a good day for search and rescue' says UKC-er Jim Fraser
The £1.6 billion contract will, it is promised, lead to improved flying times and better coverage of high-risk areas. When it is fully rolled out in 2017 the privatised service will mark the end of 70 years of search and rescue by the RAF and Royal Navy.
Bristow's new Sikorsky and AgustaWestland helicopters will be able to reach a larger area of the UK search and rescue region within one hour of take off than is currently possible with the ageing Sea King, and based on historic incident data it is estimated that there will be an overall improvement in average flying times to incidents of around 20%, from 23 to 19 minutes. Presently, approximately 70% of high and very high risk areas within the UK search and rescue region are reachable by helicopter within 30 minutes. Under the new contract, approximately 85% of the same area would be reached within this timeframe, say the Government. Of course, an improvement is hardly surprising given the age of the Sea King.
'Today's announcement represents a major investment by the government in providing a search and rescue helicopter service using the most up to date helicopters and meeting the highest professional standards' according to a DfT statement, though it might fairly be asked how the privatisation of a service formerly handled by state agencies represents a government investment in the commonly understood sense of the word.
Bristow has already been preparing crews for coastguard duties at Sumburgh in Shetland and Stornoway in the Western Isles, having won the contract to provide SAR services in the north of Scotland last year.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said:
'Our search and rescue helicopter service plays a crucial role, saving lives and providing assistance to people in distress on both land and on sea.'
'With 24 years of experience providing search and rescue helicopter services in the UK, the public can have great confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first class service with state-of-the-art helicopters.'
Let's hope so. The firm does already run SAR operations in the Netherlands, Norway, Trinidad, Australia, Russia, Brazil and Canada after all.
UKC-user Jim Fraser, an engineer and MRT member who knows a thing or two about this field, is convinced:
'This is a good day for search and rescue in and around the UK' he tells us.
'Hill-users across the country will have the benefit of a service equipped with the latest fast and powerful aircraft with world-class search equipment flown by experienced crews operating under a new regulatory regime. Bristow bring a good solution but it is also true that all of the bidders in the later stages of the competition would have brought solutions of similar quality and effectiveness.'
'The boys and girls holding the two levers will be the best. A majority of them will be the same people who are doing the job now, except that they will have 4000 or 5000 shaft horsepower and top class avionics at their disposal.'
Under the new contract, 22 shiny new helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK.
Ten Sikorsky S92s will be based, 2 per site, at Stornoway and Sumburgh, and at new bases at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports.
Ten AgustaWestland AW189s will operate, 2 per site, from Lee on Solent and a new hangar at Prestwick airport, and new bases which will be established at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports.
All bases will be operational 24 hours a day.