SNP condemn search-and-rescue helicopter changes

RAF Sea Kings will no longer be involved in SAR, after the government signed a deal with Bristow Helicopters. Picture: PA
RAF Sea Kings will no longer be involved in SAR, after the government signed a deal with Bristow Helicopters. Picture: PA
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THE SNP today condemned the Government’s decision to end more than 70 years of tradition and transfer responsibility for search and rescue helicopter cover from the RAF and Royal Navy to a private company.

• Eight helicopters to be based in Scotland, at Stornoway, Sumburgh, Prestwick Airport, and Inverness

• Bristow deal ends RAF and Navy role in search-and-rescue

Angus Robertson, the Party’s Westminster leader and Defence spokesman, branded the decision to award the £1.6 billion rescue contract to Aberdeen-based Bristow Helicopters as “misguided” and warned that it would spell an end to a trusted service which had saved countless lives on Scotland’s mountains and around the country’s coastline.

He declared: “The privatisation of military helicopter search and rescue services is misguided. It will end the role of military aircrew from these life-saving flights which is a bad move. The public has come to trust and value the military search and rescue service and this privatisation is wrong.”

Mr Robertson continued: “This is just the latest UK Government announcement which diminishes the defence footprint in Scotland. Only this week the UK Government announced the closure of RAF Prestwick and a u-turn on the basing of fast jets which will now operate in Norfolk rather than Moray as promised. Westminster cannot be trusted to make the correct defence and security decisions for Scotland.”

Bristow will take over responsibility for helicopter search and rescue operations across the UK in 2015 under a ten year contract awarded by the Department for Transport.

The helicopter group, which is headquartered in Texas, plans to replace the ageing but familiar yellow RAF and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters with modern Sikorsky S-92s and Agusta Westland 189s.

Under the new privatisation deal Bristow will operate search and rescue cover using 22 helicopters which will operate from a total of ten bases.

The helicopter company is already providing Coastguard helicopter cover at Sumburgh on Shetland and Stornoway in the Western Isles. Under the contract search and rescue cover, currently being provided at RAF Lossiemouth, will move to a new base at Inverness, while cover in the South of Scotland, currently being provided by the Royal navy at HMS Gannet will remain at Prestwick.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “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.

“With 24 years of experience providing search and rescue helicopter services in the UK, the public can have great confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first class service with state-of-the-art helicopters.”

He said he was confident that the contract with Bristow Helicopters represented the best solution for the UK. And Mr McLoughlin continued: “This contract represents a major investment by the government in providing a search and rescue helicopter service using the most up to date helicopters and meeting the highest professional standards. Operations will commence progressively from 2015 and the service will be fully operational across the United Kingdom by summer 2017.

“The contract will enable the RAF and RN to withdraw from search and rescue activities in the UK and retire their fleet of Sea King SAR helicopters. It will also ensure service continuity when the current contracted MCA service expires.”

Mr McLoughlin also praised the skill and courage of the military crews who have provided the cover for more than seven decades.

He said: “I want to pay tribute to the outstanding service personnel who have displayed such enduring commitment and bravery in RAF and RN search and rescue 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 search and rescue 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. “

Bristow Helicopters was the first company to provide helicopter services for the North Sea oil and gas industry and has 36 years experience of providing search and rescue services in the UK. The company has completed more than 44,000 search and rescue operational hours in the UK and conducted over 15,000 missions, during which more than 7,000 people have been rescued.

Mike Imlach, Bristow Helicopters Ltd’s managing director, said: “We will be introducing new, hi-tech helicopters to the UK, equipped with the latest search and rescue technology, resulting in unprecedented levels and quality of SAR coverage across the country. The existing expertise and local SAR knowledge is immensely valuable and we will ensure that this is not lost.”

A company spokesman explained: “The new service will operate a mixed fleet of 22 state of the art helicopters from 10 locations around the UK. Sikorsky S92 helicopters will continue to be based at the existing MCA bases at Stornoway and Sumburgh, and at new bases at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports. AgustaWestland AW189 helicopters will operate from Lee on Solent, Prestwick airport, and new bases at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports. All bases will be operational 24 hours a day. These base locations are strategically placed near areas with high SAR incident rates and will help ensure maximum operational coverage across the UK while reducing transit times to incidents.”

He added: “The new contract will see the creation of over 350 new jobs. The AW-189 will be assembled at AgustaWestland’s factory in Yeovil and Sikorsky plans to locate a supply hub in the Aberdeen region that will support not only the UK SAR program but also Sikorsky’s large fleet of helicopters in the region serving the important offshore oil sector. The contract will have a significant impact on the UK supply chain, providing and sustaining jobs and apprenticeships.

“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.”