The Department for Transport (DfT) is contemplating that the future of the Search and Rescue Helicopter (SAR-H) service in the United Kingdom could be given to a single operator or pair of operators rather than to a consortium of companies as happened in the last SAR-H competition. The Soteria Consortium comprising CHC Helicopters, Thales UK and the Royal Bank of Scotland won the original Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract. However, that was cancelled in 2011 following irregularities in the bidding process. The new contract award is expected early in 2013.
Industry reports are suggesting that the award of the UK’s Interim SAR competition, the contract to run the Maritime Coastguard Agency’s four helicopter bases on a short-term contact, is the forerunner of this idea.
On Feb. 8, 2012, Mike Penning, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport at DfT, announced that an Interim SAR contract had been signed with Bristow Helicopters to operate search and rescue services from Stornoway and Shetland. He added that a separate contract has been signed with CHC Scotia to operate the MCA’s southern bases at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent. “Operations under both contracts will commence by the time the existing MCA service contract expires, and will continue until June 2017. Both contracts will be managed by the MCA,” he said. The current contract for the four bases is managed by CHC with Sikorsky S-92 helicopters flying from the Scottish bases and AgustaWestland AW139s operating in southern England.
Penning continued by saying: “procurement is now under way for longer-term arrangements which will see search and rescue contracted nationally. Operations will commence under these longer term arrangements during 2015 and the future contractor for the UK will assume responsibility for the MCA capability during 2017.”
|CHC S-92||165 kts/ 305 km/h||151 kts/ 280 km/h||880 nm||12,020 kg (internal)|
|AW139||167 kts/ 309 km/h||165 kts/ 306 km/h||1,250 nm||6,400 kg|
|Sea King||129 kts/ 238km/h||111 kts/ 207 km/h||1,352 nm||9,707 kg|
The Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening, reported to the House of Commons on the same day that the new contract for the whole of UK SAR would be for a period of 10 years, with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy continuing to provide cover until the new operator could begin to take over.
“It is my intention that the contract I let will require this to be the first part of the new service to become operational. This will ensure that the Ministry of Defence is able to meet its previously announced intention to withdraw from service and retire its fleet of Sea King HAR3/3A helicopters by March 2016. The replacement for the capability currently provided by the MCA will follow on from this. This transition will ensure continuity of service,” she said.
Greening further added that “the introduction of a modern fleet of fast, reliable helicopters will lead to major improvements in the capability available from the present mix of helicopters. Modern helicopters operating from 10 full-time bases can not only continue to meet all current service requirements but also provide faster flying times to a large part of the UK search and rescue region, as well as providing a more reliable service. This will therefore be reflected in the new contract.”
The current SAR helicopter capability is delivered by a combination of MCA, Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) Westland Sea King helicopters at 12 bases around the UK mainland as follows—MCA: four bases at Lee-on Solent, Portland, Sumburgh and Stornoway; RAF: six bases at Chivenor, Wattisham, Valley, Boulmer, Leconfield and Lossiemouth; RN: two bases at Culdrose and Prestwick.
In a statement made on Nov. 28, 2011, Penning stated that the number of future bases would be reduced from the current 12 to 10. “Under the plans published today, search and rescue operations at RAF Boulmer would end in 2015 and at Portland when the MCA contract expires during 2017. The winning bidder will be then be expected to operate from 10 locations around the UK, but provide at least the same level of service as at present.”
It has been suggested that the spread of capability could be divided with five stations operating smaller helicopters while the other five would operate larger helicopters. The plan would be to spread capability around the country for close inshore, distant offshore and mass and greater capability. The operational range for the small and large helicopters has been set at around 170 nm and 200 nm, respectively. The rescue capability would be for eight passengers and two stretchers for the larger aircraft, and four passengers and two stretchers for the smaller helicopter. The current Sea Kings can take 12 passengers and two stretchers.
But one of the most concerning aspects of the transfer of search and rescue helicopter operations from the military to civilian ownership is the lack of night vision goggle (NVG) certification currently available for civilian operators. The Civil Aviation Authority has been very slow to develop a policy on this and currently each set of NVG goggles has to be qualified against a specific aircraft and its NVG-friendly cockpit. Unlike the military, who are fully trained in night vision goggle usage with crews using them on a daily basis when deployed operationally to Afghanistan, there looks to be no provision for the civilian operated service to offer anything close to this current night capability.
At the moment only the police air support units are allowed to operate night vision goggles, but they are required to come off NVGs below 500 feet—something that would be virtually impossible to comply with in terms of providing a daily SAR capability. Current RAF and Royal Navy Sea King crews continually use NVGs during search and rescue tasks, both on land and at sea. And the prospect of having to come off them below 500 feet is, say those who have served the service, precisely when NVGs are most required. Without NVGs, flying in support of the mountain rescue service at night would be severely limited. Until the DfT, MCA and CAA get together to resolve this issue, one critical element of the SAR helicopter mission portfolio will remain dangerously exposed.