The UK Department for Transport (DfT) announced on 26 March that it had signed a contract with Bristow Helicopters Ltd to provide search and rescue (SAR) helicopter services across the UK. The SAR services contract has a phased-in transition period beginning in April 2015 and continuing until July 2017, with a contract length of approximately 10 years.
The signing marks the end of a competition that was launched on 28 November 2011 to find a provider to replace the UK’s mix of SAR helicopters – currently operated by the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and civilian contractors on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) – with either one or two private fleets. Bidders were invited to bid for Lot 1, covering northern bases, Lot 2, covering southern bases, or Lot 3, covering all bases; Bristow Helicopters has been awarded Lot 3. The field has narrowed progressively throughout the bidding process, with Bristow Helicopters and Bond Offshore Helicopters last in the running; most recently, CHC left the process in January.
The official announcement was pre-empted by the Sunday Times newspaper, which reported on 17 March that Bristow Helicopters had won the deal. The news was repeated on 18 March by the Financial Times, among other news outlets. One change from the Sunday Times article however is that the DfT gives the value of the contract at just £1.6 billion, well below the figure of £3 billion reported in the newspaper and even below the DfT’s own estimate in the original competition literature of between £2 and £3 billion.
Under the new contract, helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK, with two operating from each base. The existing SAR bases at Stornoway and Sumburgh will be supplied with Sikorsky S-92s, as will new bases at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports. AgustaWestland AW189s will operate from Lee on Solent, a new hangar will be built at Prestwick airport, and new bases will be established at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports. In addition to the 10 bases with 20 aircraft, there will be two fully SAR-equipped training aircraft, one S-92 and one AW189, which can be deployed to any base as needed. All bases will be operational 24 hours a day.
The DfT asserted that the new helicopters will be able to reach a larger area of the UK SAR region within one hour of take off than is currently possible, while an overall improvement in flying times to incidents of around 20 per cent (from 23 to 19 minutes) is expected. Presently, approximately 70 per cent of high and very-high-risk areas within the UK search and rescue region are reachable by helicopter within 30 minutes, but under the new contract, approximately 85 per cent of the same area will be reached within this timeframe, said the DfT.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin commented: “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 … the public can have great confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first class service with state-of-the-art helicopters.” Commenting on the quality of the bids received, McLoughlin said: “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.”
The AW189s will be assembled at AgustaWestland’s factory in Yeovil, UK. For its part, Sikorsky plans to locate a supply hub in the Aberdeen region that will support not only the UK SAR programme, but also Sikorsky helicopters that serve the offshore oil sector.
William E. Chiles, president and chief executive officer of Houston, Texas-based Bristow Group Inc., said: “We are honoured that our affiliate Bristow Helicopters was selected by [the DfT] to provide this vital service for the people of the UK. This award will employ 22 of the world's most technologically advanced and safest helicopters, which will dramatically improve the capability to save lives and significantly reduce the UK Government's costs for the next decade. It is planned that some of the military personnel currently involved in SAR in the UK will join Bristow Helicopters to work under this contract, and we look forward to welcoming them into the Bristow family.”
In early 2012, Bristow Helicopters was awarded a Gap SAR services contract that commences in July 2013, utilising four S-92 helicopters based in Scotland at Stornoway and Sumburgh. The Gap SAR contract is expected to run for about four years until transition occurs for these two bases to the new longer-term contract.
Mike Imlach, Bristow Helicopters managing director, reflected: “Bristow Helicopters has a proven reputation for exceptional UK SAR services, having performed such services over 36 years with world-class operations that included unmatched flight safety performance, extensive aircrew training, first class maintenance facilities, supply-chain partners, and project procurement and contract management.” He added that affiliates of Bristow Group Inc. currently operate similar SAR services in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Dutch Antilles, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia and Trinidad.
Commenting on the impact that the contract will have on the Group, Jonathan Baliff, senior vice-president and chief financial officer, stated: “We believe that these contract terms and conditions are transformative from an operational and financial standpoint for our company. The number of helicopters operated, combined with the revenue and earnings generated under this contract, will create both a larger and lower risk company going forward.” The total capital requirement for the project is expected to be approximately $1 billion (£0.7 billion), much of which is dedicated to the acquisition of the helicopters, added Baliff. He continued: “We believe that the financing plan based on our company's capital strength was an important criterion for the selection of Bristow Helicopters to provide this life saving service which requires a high level of safety and on-time reliability, and at higher service levels and lower cost than previously anticipated by the UK government.”
As services are handed over to Bristow Helicopters, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy will withdraw from SAR activities in the UK and retire their fleets of ageing Sea King SAR helicopters. McLoughlin: remarked: “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 SAR.” He added: “I want to pay tribute to the outstanding service personnel who have displayed such enduring commitment and bravery in Royal Air Force and Royal Navy SAR 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 SAR 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 MCA (and its predecessor bodies) has 30 years’ experience of operating contracted SAR helicopter services using civilian aircrew, said McLoughlin, adding that the existing MCA SAR contracts have delivered services of the ‘very highest standards’. He noted that Bristow Helicopters has 36 years’ experience of providing SAR services in the UK, including 24 years with the MCA, rescuing more than 7,000 people.
McLoughlin concluded: “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.”
Image: One of the S-92s that Bristow will operate for the UK Gap SAR contract / Bristow Helicopter