Qinetiq reviews Bristow SAR contract


HM Coastguard Sikorsky S-92 operated by Bristow Helicopters

A recent independent review by British defence company Qinetiq has praised the transition of the UK’s search and rescue helicopter (SARH) services to the civil market as “successful”.

In 2012, the UK Government put the exclusive helicopter operating rights for UK SAR up for auction. CHC and Bristow were the two final bidders for the service, with Bristow eventually securing the £1.6 billion contract to operate all SARH flights over a ten-year period (1 April 2015 – 31 March 2026). CHC now operates the Irish SARH service.

The privatisation of the UK search and rescue operations met with some controversy upon its initial announcement. But now, according to the Qinetiq report, the transition has proved to be a success. Whilst Bristow remains under Chapter 11 protection, the UK SAR contract has provided stability and helped diversify the business away from its less-stable oil-and-gas bread and butter sector.

The report summarises: “This study concludes that the UKSARH Programme has achieved a successful transition to a fully civilianised, rationalised operation with enhanced capability, while providing a seamless SAR service to the UK.

“Demands on the UKSARH service remain consistent with those prior to the transition, and performance measures are being met. The UKSARH aircraft is capable, adaptable and provides an unequalled service in urgent or emergency situations.”

Prior to the transition, the UK Government had decided to close two of the country’s SAR airbases and to refurbish and expand three of the remaining facilities. When Bristow came on board, it completely transitioned away from the iconic UK SAR yellow Sea Kings to a two-aircraft fleet of Bristow livery AW189 and S92s.

Bristow currently operates a fleet of 11 AW189s and the same number of S92s.

When asked whether the base closures affected coverage of search and rescue operations, Bristow responded: “(The closure of bases) has had no negative impact on operational service delivery.  Bristow currently operates from 10 bases in locations required by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency with base utilization and tasking rates across UK SAR operations higher than the legacy service.”

Highlighting the shortfalls of the transition, the report also acknowledges difficulties with landing in non-prepared or remote areas with Bristow’s new fleet of larger aircraft.

Similar concerns have been raised by a consortium of four of Scotland’s largest mountain rescue teams. They issued a joint statement in November last year raising concerns about an “apparent disregard for safety” for some of the operators. The open letter detailed more-frequent instances of refused helicopter service on missions since the SARH was privatised.

The Qinetiq report stated: “The increased physical size of, and downdraught caused by, the aircraft has reportedly introduced additional risk and reduced capability when landing at some facilities and sites.”

“It is recommended that compatibility issues between UKSARH platforms with existing helicopter landing facilities, in particular at HLS, are subject to further investigation.

The transition is now approaching completion, with Bristow awaiting delivery of the final AW189 aircraft to arrive at its Inverness base.

Regarding the transition, Bristow told Helicopter Investor: “The transition from a combined service delivery by the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and CHC helicopter crews has proved successful.”