Public Service

Bristow Brings Broadband to UK Search and Rescue

By By Andrew Drwiega and Joe Ambrogne | February 2, 2015

This year, Bristow Helicopters will become the first civilian operator to provide all of the United Kingdom’s (UK) search and rescue (SAR) helicopters after being appointed by the Department of Transport on March 25, 2013. The task will be to provide SAR coverage around 10,500 miles of coastline, onshore and further offshore.

The contract, worth $2.4 billion (£1.6 billion), was announced by then Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin after a some what secretive process initially conducted by his department. This was followed by a preliminary competition that saw Bristow rival CHC Helicopter awarded the contract first, only to have the bid cancelled after CHC self-reported and self-disclosed potential improprieties by two former employees in 2010.

The ensuing delay meant that the Ministry of Defense had to extend the out-of-service date of their Sea King helicopters, and a Gap SAR contract had to be initiated to cover for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s (MCA) part of the service as their contract with then provider CHC Helicopter had been scheduled to end when the complete UK service contract was awarded.


In the summer of 2013, Bristow Helicopters won the Gap SAR contract for the northern two bases and CHC Helicopter won the Gap SAR contract for the southern two bases. Since then, Bristow has completed more than one year of operations at Stornaway and Sumburgh in Scotland. Those bases have been as busy as ever, with two S-92s at each base logging 160 missions and 150 missions respectively over the first year, rescuing a total of 70 people and more than 200 assisted between them. Both bases will come under Bristow’s main UK contract in 2017.

The transition from the current operators, the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Navy (RN) and the MCA will begin in April, and Bristow will hold the contract until 2026. Since its appointment, Bristow Helicopters has stepped up to the challenge with a wave of building work and the recruitment of aircrew to run the civilian service, many of whom are stepping straight out of their uniforms and into new helicopters.

When complete, Bristow’s SAR service will operate from 10 bases around the UK with new modular hangars being built at Inverness, Manston, Prestwick, Caernarfon, Humberside, Newquay and St Athan. The new structures highlight built-in environmentally friendly features including PV solar panels and rainwater harvesting systems. Operations from another two bases, RAF Boulmer in the north of England and MCA Portland on the south coast will no longer be required. The bases at Lee-on-Solent and Sumburgh will continue to be used, while the facilities at Stornoway will undergo refurbishment.

The first two SAR bases to begin operations on April 1, 2015 under the new contract and replacing the military helicopters will be at Humberside on the north east coast of England and on the east side of Scotland at Inverness. The new facilities at both locations have been completed, with pre-operational activity having begun on Jan. 5.

Two of Bristow’s Gap SAR Sikorsky S-92s in formation over terrain that often requires joint operations with agencies such as mountain rescue organizations. Photo courtesy Bristow Helicopters

Bristow needed to increase its personnel strength by around 350 people. Many of the crew will be transferring from the ranks of the military with Bristow working with the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to mutually agree release dates from service for those personnel. This is to ensure that there is no shortage of military SAR personnel as their responsibility reduces.

Replacing the vintage late 1970s Sea King HAR3/3As are modern Sikorsky S-92s and AgustaWestland AW189s. There will be 22 of the new airframes (11 of each type) with two spares. The S-92s have already been operating from the Gap SAR bases. In addition to three S-92s, Bristow was presented with its first AW189 at the end of November 2014. Bristow is well acquainted with the S-92 as President and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Baliff explains: “With nearly 70 S-92 helicopters already in our inventory, we have come to know and appreciate the aircraft’s safety and reliability.”

When the contract was issued, McLoughlin set the challenge that the new helicopter types should achieve “a 20 percent improvement in flying times, with the average flight time reducing from 23 minutes to 19 minutes.” At the time, the government’s research indicated that around 70 percent of high risk areas around the coastline were reachable in half an hour’s flight time. This is expected to increase to 85 percent under the new system.


Broadband Connectivity

This map shows Bristow’s current SAR coverage in the UK.

One new technology that Bristow is bringing to the UK’s SAR operations is OpenPort, a broadband satellite communications service by Iridium Communications. Bristow’s S-92 airframes will access Iridium OpenPort, previously used in maritime vessels for global voice and data communications, through the onboard installation of LiveAero by Iridium partner Thales. Using OpenPort, SAR aircrews will gain three major capabilities: independence from ground-relay stations for reliable helicopter communications, multiple voice lines for simultaneous conversations between air and ground crews, and transmission of electronic logistical and medical data to and from the helicopters in flight.

In the helicopter SAR sector, the value of reliable communications cannot be understated. An interruption in coverage can spell disaster for pilots flying into poor weather, dispatchers relaying complex and changeable search patterns, and aircrews apprising hospital ground staff of the condition of their patients. And, as recent disasters have shown, the same circumstances that necessitate SAR missions can also silence traditional VHF communications between air and ground crews when they are most needed.

Satellite communication systems have historically posed a challenge for helicopters, whose spinning rotor blades interfere with overhead satellite signals. But in the past few years, a handful of solutions have been developed for military and commercial sectors. In 2013, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation was able to retrofit a Eurocopter AS365 N3 with its Helicopter Satellite Communication System (HSA) for use by Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA). That same year, Hughes Network Systems demonstrated high-throughput video and data transmissions over its communications-on-the-move (COTM) microsat system on a variety of military helicopters. Both systems minimized rotor disc interference by transmitting signal bursts synchronized with the spinning of the blades.

Traditionally, Bristow’s own helicopters around the globe have used VHF radios for communication to and from a dispatcher, platform, or destination. Nearly all of Bristow’s helicopters have also been equipped with Iridium installations providing basic flight tracking and assets monitoring. This is one reason Iridium was chosen over alternative technologies. The company’s constellation of 60 low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites provides unbroken coverage from pole to pole. Their low orbits also mean that any helicopter-mounted antenna can face outward along the horizon towards multiple satellites, rather than having to face straight up through the rotor disc towards a single satellite directly overhead. The result is a signal uninterrupted by terrain, weather, and abnormal flight profiles.

Though Bristow’s UK contract is the first helicopter operator to use Iridium’s OpenPort service, Brian Pemberton, Iridium’s executive director of aviation and maritime lines, credits the oil and gas sector with first discovering Iridium’s advantages during a crisis. “It was really in the 2005 timeframe following Hurricane Katrina that the rotorcraft market became more familiar with Iridium,” says Pemberton. “All of their terrestrial VHF infrastructure that they would use for communications to and from the platforms was totally decimated and not able to be rebuilt in a timely manner, yet they had to get resources and assets to and from the platforms either to repair them or to assess them or to get them back in operation.” Helicopters connected to Iridium were able to communicate with ground support, and even to fly in tandem with unequipped helicopters to ensure mission safety.

An artist’s impression of one of Bristow’s new hangars designed to house the new SAR helicopters. Images courtesy Bristow

OpenPort itself provides a step up in functionality for rotorcraft. Along with Iridium’s reliable coverage, OpenPort gives S-92 aircrews three independent voice channels. So, Pemberton says: “users in the cockpit can be using the voice to talk to dispatch, where someone in the back of the rotorcraft – such as a medical employee or technician, or one of the members of the SAR team – could be on the phone to someone else at the same time.”

Perhaps even more importantly, OpenPort provides a Wi-Fi/data channel, greatly expanding the types of data that can now be shared between the helicopter and ground support. The potential SAR applications are numerous. Dispatchers can send pilots updated electronic flight plans as search patters change. Aeromedical nurses can send a critically injured patient’s vital signs electronically to hospital staff while the helicopter is still en route. Flight crews can even send emails and text messages. “Any sorts of applications that you would enable over your computers on a terrestrial network can now be extended with little or no modification to the rotorcraft environment,” says Pemberton.

The Sikorsky S-92 Alpha is the only helicopter currently supported by OpenPort, but other airframes (and commercial sectors) may be considered in the future. “I think there was a community within the rotorcraft market niche, if you will, that never believed this type of technology would be available to them,” says Pemberton. “And now that it is…they’re really going to embrace this whole concept of the connected aircraft and think of all the capabilities they’ll be able to incorporate into their aircraft.” To date, one of Bristow’s helicopters has already been installed with LiveAero technology capable of using OpenPort, and as many as 20 of the avionics platforms are scheduled for delivery by the middle of 2015.

Other Organizations

Bristow AgustaWestland AW189 SAR helicopter.
Photo courtesy AgustaWestland

Bristow will not be operating its helicopters alone, as there are many different agencies that it must interact with. Perhaps the key player in all of these is the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Center (ARCC), currently staffed by military operators and based at ex-RAF Kinloss in Scotland. However it will be relocated to the MCA’s new National Maritime Coordination Center (NMCC) based at Fareham in southern England. The ARCC provides coordination for rescues, which frequently involve other agencies including the UK’s mountain rescue teams, police, fire service, coastguard and volunteer organizations.

Public Service | SARBristow SARPublic Service | SARBristow SARThe Sikorsky S-92 is just one model that Bristow uses for its SAR efforts. Photo courtesy Wikimedia CommonsTwo of Bristow’s Gap SAR Sikorsky S-92s in formation over terrain that often requires joint operations with agencies such as mountain rescue organizations. 

Related: SAR News

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