Written statement to Parliament

Search and rescue helicopters

A £1.6 billion contract has been signed to provide a search and rescue helicopter service for the UK with Bristow Helicopters Ltd.

On 28 November 2011 the Department for Transport started a competition to procure search and rescue helicopter services to replace the joint capability provided by the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Navy (RN), and Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The procurement process has now finished, and I wish to inform the House of the results.

I am pleased to announce that a £1.6 billion contract has been signed today to provide a search and rescue helicopter service for the whole of the UK with Bristow Helicopters Ltd. I would like to recognise the very high quality and the maturity of the bids provided by the two companies who reached the final stages in this vital competition for an emergency service in the UK. In buying such an important service that protects the safety of individuals in our maritime industries and in dangerous conditions on land and around our coastline it is vital that we had a robust competition with credible and thoroughly developed propositions from industry. I am confident that we did. I am equally confident that the contract we are entering into with Bristow Helicopters Ltd represents the best solution for the UK over the next 10 years.

This contract 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. Operations will commence progressively from 2015 and the service will be fully operational across the United Kingdom by summer 2017.

The contract will enable the RAF and RN to withdraw from search and rescue activities in the UK and retire their fleet of Sea King SAR helicopters. It will also ensure service continuity when the current contracted MCA service expires. Services under the new contract will operate from 7 to 10 years and will be managed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Experience of front line operations has informed the military decision that the skills required for personnel recovery on the battlefield and in the maritime environment can be sustained without the need for military personnel being engaged in UK search and rescue. I want to pay tribute to the outstanding service personnel who have displayed such enduring commitment and bravery in RAF and RN search and rescue squadrons. The service they have provided for over 70 years has been exemplary and the country owes them all an enormous debt of gratitude. The decision to cease military involvement in search and rescue in the UK was not made lightly. But with the Sea King nearing its 40th year of service, the time has come to change the way the service is provided and the aircraft used.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (and its predecessor bodies) has 30 years experience of operating contracted search and rescue helicopter services using civilian aircrew. The existing MCA search and rescue contracts have delivered services of the very highest standards, and highly skilled civilian crews have won numerous awards for their bravery and dedication.

Bristow Helicopters Ltd is a UK company which has 36 years experience of providing search and rescue services in the UK, including 24 years with the MCA. The company has received numerous awards for SAR missions its civilian crews have undertaken, including Chief Coastguard’s Commendations, Coastguard Rescue Shields, the Prince Phillip Helicopter Award and the Queen’s Commendation for a mission in which 60 seamen were rescued.

Bristow Helicopters Ltd has completed more than 44,000 search and rescue operational hours in the UK and conducted over 15,000 missions, during which more than 7,000 people have been rescued by their crews.

The new service will operate a mixed fleet of 22 state of the art helicopters from 10 locations around the UK. Sikorsky S92 helicopters will continue to be based at the existing MCA bases at Stornoway and Sumburgh, and at new bases at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports. AgustaWestland AW189 helicopters will operate from Lee on Solent, Prestwick airport, and new bases at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports. All bases will be operational 24 hours a day. These base locations are strategically placed near areas with high SAR incident rates and will help ensure maximum operational coverage across the UK while reducing transit times to incidents.

This combination of aircraft and base locations will provide a world class search and rescue capability. Helicopters will be able to reach a larger area of the UK search and rescue region within 1 hour of take off than is currently possible, and based on historic incident patterns we estimate that there will be an overall 20% improvement in flying times, with the average flight time reducing from 23 minutes to 19. Presently, approximately 70 % of high and very high risk areas are reachable within 30 minutes. Under the new contract, approximately 85% of the same areas are reachable within this timeframe.

The new contract will see the creation of over 350 new jobs. The AW-189 will be assembled at AgustaWestland’s factory in Yeovil and Sikorsky plans to locate a supply hub in the Aberdeen region that will support not only the UK SAR program but also Sikorsky’s large fleet of helicopters in the region serving the important offshore oil sector. The contract will have a significant impact on the UK supply chain, providing and sustaining jobs and apprenticeships.

The safety of professional mariners, aviators, all those travelling by sea or air, and all of those enjoying our seas, coasts and mountains for business or leisure is of paramount importance. This new contract, which will match or exceed our existing search and rescue capability, will ensure that this country’s search and rescue helicopter service will be the standard bearer, both in Europe and beyond.

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