Helicopter search and rescue has long been the purview of governments and their militaries, but the role is increasingly being taken over by the private sector.

Back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, search and rescue (SAR) was seen as a critical task of the military because its priority was the recovery of downed pilots. The jet engine was still a maturing technology and air arms could probably expect to lose their new jet aircraft once or twice a week during training. As a result, fleets of helicopters were assigned to be ready to pluck these expensive-to-train fighter pilots out of the water.

But with today's modern combat aircraft, such incidents are fortunately rare.Search and rescue helicopter crews are more likely to be dealing with civil emergencies rescuing hikers from the mountains or winching injured fishermen from trawlers out at sea.

As defense budgets have tightened, governments across the world see SAR as less a military priority and more a “blue light” operation, like that of the police, fire service or ambulance. Military crews on stand-by waiting around for an emergency call would be better off being transferred to front-line units where they can put their expensive training to better use, while new technology has prompted those in government to look to the private sector where private operators have repeatedly shown they can bring aircraft into service on time and with a minimum of fuss compared with their colleagues in military uniform. Public perception appears to be that the private sector should not be involved in such missions, but private operators actually have been doing SAR for years, and it is likely this role will grow.

The U.K. was one of the earliest to adopt a commercial path to helicopter search and rescue more than 30 years ago in Northern Scotland and along the South Coast. There the helicopters wear the colors of the U.K. Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). By the end of March 2016, full responsibility of all U.K. helicopter SAR will fall to private contractor Bristow Helicopters.

The company will provide SAR helicopters from 10 locations for 11 years from April 2015, fully eliminating the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy from a vigil they have held for more than 50 years. Bristow's operation will be similar to what it provides to oil and gas companies it is familiar with serving.

The government will pay a monthly standing charge and then a second variable service charge based on flying rates, fuel and other ancillary items. The company has budgeted for the 22 aircraft to fly a combined total of 10,000 flying hours a year—equivalent to 1,000 hr. per base per year. If Bristow does not meet its “key user requirements” set by the Department for Transport in areas such as availability and response times, then the company faces the risk of financial penalties.

While Britain will not be the first to go down this route, it will be first to do it on such a large scale. Bristow's size and economies of scale—supported by the work from the energy companies—provide it with a strong, secure platform to supply the service needed.

In Sweden, where the air force found it could no longer support the SAR mission in 2002, the government called in local operator Norrlandsflyg to carry out the mission. But with only limited income from SAR and emergency services (EMS) operations, it fell into difficulty and had to be nationalized in order to secure the service, later renamed SMA Helicopter Rescue, part of the Swedish Maritime Administration. Norrlandsflyg EMS operation was spun off and continues to fly. In Spain, Avincis-owned Inaer flies a mix of rotary-wing assets for the Spanish Maritime Safety Agency while Airbus Defense and Space operates the CASA CN-235 fixed-wing patrol aircraft. Oil and gas operator CHC provides Sikorsky S-76s for the Royal Australian Air Force flying SAR missions from key air bases around the country's vast coastline. The same company has also just introduced new modern Sikorsky S-92s for use on a SAR contract on behalf of the Irish Coast Guard.

Helicopter-based search-and-rescue capability is also becoming a key factor for the oil industry too, which has increasingly recognized that as its platforms move farther offshore, reaction times for land-based SAR assets would be too slow. So several operators have been contracted to provide aircraft based on platforms at sea to provide a quick-reaction capability to emergencies such as ditched crew-change helicopters, men overboard and medical evacuations.

This strategy is already in use in the North Sea where two helicopters, operated under Project Jigsaw provide 24/7 coverage, one from a land base at Sumburgh, the other on BP's Miller platform. Bristow also provides a single Eurocopter EC225 to support SAR for Norwegian offshore platforms based in Hammerfest in the very north of the country.

In the near future, SAR operations are likely to be provided to sites with a growing oil and gas industry, such as the coast of West Africa where there is little or no government provision of such a service. New technology is increasingly needed to rescue people in the more challenging extremes of weather and geography, but the question remains whether governments can afford to do it themselves.