The U.K. is once again embarking on a path towards a civilianized search and rescue helicopter force.
By the end of 2016, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy’s Sea Kings should be gone and Bristow, through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), will be plucking people from the sea and mountain sides.
Image: Tony Osborne / Aviation Week
Theoretically it should be business as usual, except the helicopters will be faster and probably be painted in a different color.
But if you had read the British media this week following the announcement by the Department for Transport and Bristow on March 26, you might have been led to believe that you should never go to a beach, walk up a mountain or enjoy the luxury of your boat -- if you are lucky enough to have one -- after April 2015.
Commentators said the privatization brings “a lot of dangers,” and that “people’s lives were at risk.” They said that civilians SAR crews would not take the same risks as the military would and that profits could come first.
But all these claims are totally unfounded and pretty insulting to the unsung civilian crews which have been working alongside the Royal Navy and the RAF for the last 30 or so years. Currently, seven helicopters operated by North Sea operator CHC work on behalf of the MCA from bases in Scotland and on the South Coast of England. Before CHC took on the role, the job fell to crews from Bristow flying the S-61 Sea King. These aircraft and crews have rescued thousands of people in that time taking the same risks and flying in the same conditions as their military counterparts and often without the same levels of technology such as night vision goggles -- something that will change in the coming months when Bristow begin using their S-92s on a contract in the North of Scotland later this year.
It is also worth pointing out to the critics that the winner of this year’s Billy Deacon trophy SAR trophy was a crew from Bond Offshore Helicopters, and not by a military crew, who have of course won it in the past.
The reality is that while the SAR mission is great PR value for the Royal Navy and the RAF, SAR is no longer part of the armed forces' core mission, and many officers will be glad to see the back of it along with the increasingly expensive to operate Sea King fleet. They should also get back at least a few experienced pilots to fly the Chinook or Merlin on the front line. After all, it is hardly fair that an experienced SAR pilot will have probably never have seen a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, yet personnel who served on other types might have been deployed to those hot and dusty places many more times than they care to remember.
And then there’s the panic of what might happen to Prince William. A prince without a job – good job he’s got a full-time career as a member of the Royal family then, isn’t it?
The problem is that the contracting out services hasn’t had the greatest of press in recent times. You only need to see what happened the last time we tried to privatize search and rescue: it didn’t go well, and was abandoned because of irregularities in the bidding process. Military police are still looking into it even now. And then of course there are the issues with the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft program which is still yet to deliver an air-to-air refueling capability, but we are assured that it will be able to do so soon.
The point is that this is a very different contract serving a very different need. The crews who will eventually fly the rescue missions will be just as motivated as their military colleagues and ultimately it will be them who make the judgment calls on the risks they feel they need to take when rescuing someone from a sinking ship. It won’t be down to a bean counter in Aberdeen or Whitehall, and there won’t be a need to pull out your credit card as the helicopter hones into view.
Contractorized SAR is here and is likely to become more commonplace. The U.K. wasn’t the first to embrace it and it won’t be the last.