This is a landmark year for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in that it is celebrating 70 years of conducting search and rescue (SAR) operations over land and sea around the UK (1941–2011). Disappointingly, it is also facing up to the potential end of its involvement in this activity. Although the Soteria Consortium (comprising CHC Helicopter, Thales UK and the Royal Bank of Scotland) had been selected at the end of 2010 to take over the SAR-Helicopter (SAR-H) contract under a private finance initiative (PFI), the British Government was left with no alternative but to overturn the appointment when it was discovered that a CHC employee had received sensitive information from a military source during the bid process.
The result of this decision has been to create a dilemma regarding the future of the SAR Force. With the SAR-H contract now presumably needing to be re-bid, the short-term continuation of the Sea King fleet in terms of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) also needs to be revisited as out-of-service dates had been set around 2017. This has a knock-on effect in terms of the entire Ministry of Defence Sea King fleet, as the type is also in operated with the Royal Marine Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), which was supposed to exchange its Sea Kings for RAF AgustaWestland AW101 Merlins. These in turn had been freed up when the decision was made this summer to buy another 14 CH-47 Chinook helicopters from Boeing to expand the RAF’s support helicopter capability. Maintaining a small number of Sea Kings for the SAR Force would present the MoD with an expensive bill, not what it needs at a time when defense budgets are being slashed with frightening regularity as the government tries to handle the budget deficit it inherited from the previous Labor administration.
The most immediate need has been for the Department for Transport (DfT) to create something of an emergency contract for the continuity of the Maritime Coastguard Agency’s (MCA) helicopters, as its contract with CHC Helicopters expires in 2012—a date deliberately timed so that the RAF, Royal Navy and MCA fleets could all be wound-down at the same time as the PFI contract took over and new Sikorsky S-92 aircraft came into service. This Gap SAR Helicopter Service contract was put out for tender in July (the S-92 fleet is earmarked to be transferred to the Republic of Ireland) and is planned to run for six years (with a one-year extension option).
The four bidders for this Gap SAR contract are Bond Offshore, Bristow, CHC Helicopter and lesser-known Ipod Consortium (comprised of Era Helicopters and British International). As the bid deadline was early October, the submissions have been under consideration by the DfT and an announcement is expected by mid-January 2012. Bidders could elect to provide a service for the southern bases—Lee-on-Solent and Portland—or the northern bases at Isle of Lewis and the Shetland Islands, or both north and south. The total value of the contract for the total coverage area is estimated by the DfT at around £200-£250 million.
Read the full story in the December 2011 print edition of Rotor & Wing.
Related: UK Search and Rescue Needs a Lifeline