Newsletter: SAR takes off with Covid rule relaxations


Depending on where you are reading this, there might be reasons to revel in the easing of restrictions. Maybe you are on a summer holiday with the sound of the waves and a cocktail. Or perhaps you’re trying a new kind of outdoor activity.

Either way, the summer – and relaxed rules in various countries – is unfortunately leading to an increased demand for and frequency in helicopter search and rescue (SAR) missions.

Chris Bradshaw, president, Bristow Group, told Helicopter Investor: “With Covid-related overseas travel restrictions and a higher percentage of the population doing ‘staycations’, we are observing increased demand for mission taskings within the UK.”

Air & Sea Analytics founder and principal, Steve Robertson, agreed with Bradshaw. He told Helicopter Investor: “Through the peak of the pandemic, SAR missions would have slowed down a lot. But now that restrictions have been relaxed, in the UK over the past two months, the recreational activity – people out in the sea or mountain climbing – is probably one of the key drivers of live SAR missions.”

In Europe, Steffen Bay, CEO of Belgian operator NHV said its SAR fleet in The Netherlands is not much busier in the summer than it is during the winter. There will typically be more training in the summer. “People go out despite the cold temperatures but the weather conditions are more extreme for the SAR team,” he told Helicopter Investor. NHV has two bases in the country.

However, this does not mean there was no SAR activity in 2020. Since the pandemic began, Bristow has completed more than 1,700 flights transporting people with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, said Bradshaw.

NHV transformed an Airbus H175 helicopter into a ‘CovidCopter’ as well as several HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) missions in France.

Robertson said crews continued to train. “The training requirements are a bit different to other segments – oil and gas or fixed wing – where the need to be flying missions rather than spending time in the simulator is quite different.”

A S-92 Search and Rescue aircraft operated by Bristow.

According to data from the UK’s Department for Transport, there were 365 taskings to UK-based helicopters in August 2020, 175 of which were rescue missions. This was the highest number of taskings in 2020. There have been 436 taskings in the first three months of 2021, 181 of which have been rescue missions.

US Coast Guard data shows search and rescues increased by 92% from October 1st, 2019 through September 30th, 2021. A further 50% increase for this year is anticipated.

Andy Evans, director of aviation advisor, Aerossurance told Helicopter Investor recent extreme weather events have resulted in challenging taskings for a number of SAR services and “that trend is only likely to increase with climate change”.

Aircraft serving SAR missions account for about 12% of Bristow’s fleet. Its contract with the UK’s HM Coastguard, part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, is the largest SAR operation globally. It provides SAR services in Guyana, Norway, Trinidad and others.

It also contributes to 25% of operating revenues. Bradshaw said: “We have a similar percentage of the fleet serving other [non-SAR] missions for government customers. In total, our government services line represents almost 25% of Bristow’s operating revenues.”

Robertson said diversification has become a focus for many operators, following intense competition in the oil and gas sector. “Some of the operators who have lost out in oil and gas are thinking about where else they can be redeployed. It is pretty difficult to retrofit a helicopter to SAR standards, but there’s a lot of operators out there looking at the SAR market quite seriously,” he said.

There are also lots of crossovers between military and civil SAR missions, according to Robertson. And who gets the missions is often decided by technical and economic factors. “Every time SAR tenders come up, there are often different solutions at the table,” he said.

Super medium helicopters have typically been a success for SAR missions. “It’s going to favour the heavy-end of the rotorcraft business because of the need to pick up larger payloads,” said Robertson. Bay and NHV have a different approach. Four light aircraft out of NHV’s 65-aircraft fleet fly SAR missions. Bay says flying light helicopters allows them to deploy more aircraft for a mission, land at more locations and effectively save more lives.  

Unmanned aircraft and the future of SAR

Evans, from Aerossurance, said national SAR organisations will focus on outcomes and having the right mix of SAR assets. Evans told Helicopter Investor: “This may mean a greater role for fixed wing aircraft and unmanned air systems [UAS] and reduce SAR helicopter flying. However, while fixed wing and UAS can find and even assist casualties, they can’t rescue people in distress and convey them to a place of safety, so they are not a replacement for SAR helicopters.” 

Sensor technology that helps shorten search time will help increase the effectiveness of SAR assets, according to him.

Air & Sea’s Robertson finds it difficult to see a future where rotorcraft are not required. “There’s certainly the case that some of the functions are looking to the use of unmanned assistance,” he said. “On the technical side, the use of automation and unmanned vehicles is still in its infancy for SAR. But you have seen the use of these in the UK which are supporting SAR activity.

Bay believes that unmanned aircraft will work alongside rotorcraft for SAR missions. “I don’t see a drone doing SAR without human influence. They will do the surveillance and reconnaissance and once the position has been established, you will deploy an asset to bring the person back.”

Evans believes the renewable energy industry and the oil and gas industry could collaborate more within their own sectors and with each other. He thinks this will give rise to more collaboratively funded industry SAR services in parts of the world where the national SAR services are not as advanced. 

The answer might be in collaboration and new technology. Bristow’s Bradshaw concluded: “We hope the industry will continue to be open to the assessment of opportunities to apply new and innovative technology that will help achieve added value and efficiencies.”

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