Tuesday, 26 March 2013

S.A.R Privatisation

Privatisation is not some thing I am generally in favour of and is an area that I would not normally write about but some of the comments and reporting about the privatisation of the UK’s Search and Rescue helicopters is so badly informed and sensationalist I felt I would add my two pence.

It is an area I have a little knowledge of, having served in the Fleet Air Arm and worked in the aviation side of the oil industry for nearly twenty years. This post also has a relevance to the helicopter service that use to operate from Penzance.

The main driver for the privatisation of the Search and Rescue helicopters are the helicopters themselves, since the early 1970’s the helicopter used for S.A.R work by the military in the UK has been the Sea King, the S61 that flew to the I.O.S was the civil version, the Sea King was also throughout the 70’s 80’s and 90’s the helicopter used by the military for a large part of its helicopter flying, but sadly the days of the Sea King are coming to an end, most of the airframes themselves are nearly 40 years old and any one who owns an old car knows how much they cost to maintain.

As the Sea King leaves service and is replaced by the Merlin (that’s the one at the end of Sky Fall) the crews are retrained in flying and maintaining these new aircraft, but there is no S.A.R variant of this aircraft, so if the military wished to continue with the SAR role it would be forced to purchase a helicopter type just for this role, then air and ground crew would have to be trained to work on this type but military personnel are moved to new postings every few years, so you would be trapped in a constant training cycle, as both air and ground crews have to be licensed for each aircraft type they work on. This is not really a practical solution.

Bristows, who have won the contract to supply S.A.R services are very experienced in this type of work, between 1971 (even before the S.A.R came to Culdrose) and 2007 Bristows flew SAR helicopters on contract to H.M Coastguard in 2007 this contract was awarded to a Canadian company. It will surprise many that Bristows also trains all military helicopter pilots and SAR crews. Alan Bristow who founded the company was a Fleet Air Arm pilot himself.

The new service will use Sikorsky S-92 and the AgustaWestland AW189 helicopter, these are very modern and there capabilities far exceeds the old Sea Kings, flying further and faster.  

I'm very sorry to see the old Sea Kings go, they where a big part of my working life but cold logic tells me that this is the only practical way forward.

1 comment:

  1. Just a couple of nuanced points to make. I agree with the gist the Sea Kings are outdated on a recent visit to Culdrose with Cornwall Search and Rescue team. It transpired that one of my team mates had served as a crewman in the Navy in one of the helicopters still there many years previously. It was a couple of weeks older than him so you're right about the 40ish age of the airframes. Although it's right to compare them to an old car not many old cars have had new engines, gear boxes and such.

    As for the issue of training, many pilots and crew are third + tour of flying in other squadrons and roles and have previously flown in different aircraft. The older crew in Wessex helos and obviously the newer ones are trained in Merlins and the Lynx more than Sea Kings which have mostly been phased out. Incidentally the reason they don't use Merlins for SAR is it has a much greater downwash than the Sea King so unsuitable for the kind of delicate rescue work, cliffs, small vessels etc.

    My problem with the new contract is not the company or its record. Or indeed the pilots/ crews most of which will be present RN and RAF SAR. But the service for profit aspect and the fact the service is much reduced losing Chivenor and Culdrose for Newquay airport. In addition the reduction in available aircraft and the strains this will put on operational capability. In a more sensible world the government would have replaced the Sea King with a more versatile aircraft, take for example the American Blackhawk used by all of the US armed services and the US Coastguard thus benefiting from economies of scale. But alas no and now we wouldn't find ourselves at this dead end and as you rightly point out with little alternative without substantial investment.