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By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

26 Mar 13. Your money or your life? An interesting question now being asked by some as a result of the now announced and much revised Coalition Government plan to privatise UK search and rescue operations in 2015/16 and that are today carried out with such dedication and bravery by a combination of Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the Maritime and Coastguard Service helicopters and crews.

Just over two years since a proposed 25-year/£7bn plan to replace RAF, Royal Navy and Maritime and Coastguard Agency search and rescue activities collapsed for reasons that have never been properly explained the Coalition Government in the form of the Transport Department has finally confirmed that Bristow Helicopters will take over the running of all principle UK search and rescue activities beginning in 2015. The deal is reported by the press this morning to be worth around £1.6bn and it will apparently be spread over just ten years as opposed to the original 25-year plan.

Details of the award are not surprisingly sparse but we are led to believe that a fleet of 22 state-of-the-art Sikorsky S-92 helicopters are to be acquired to replace the ageing though still excellent fleet of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy helicopters. As far as I am aware no detail has yet been given with regard to the small fleet of AW139 helicopters that currently in service with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency but it is clear that by 2016 all Sea King Helicopters currently operated by the RAF and Royal Navy together with their brilliant crews will have gone.

The disparity between the estimated cost of a what had just two years ago been a 25 year £7bn PFI proposal (preferred bidder status had at that time been awarded to the ‘Soteria’ joint venture partnership) and the newly suggested ten-year £1.6bn deal now on the table is certainly very marked. Many followers of the plan to replace military search and rescue services with a private sector operator will know that the first plan collapsed on the basis of reported irregularities in the bidding process.

My main area of concern is not about cost but fear that by attempting to hand over responsibility from the military to the private sector on a pure and admitted basis of making big operational savings will put lives at risk. Whilst it is true that having declined to upgrade the existing fleet of Sikorsky Sea King helicopters we have had to accept that these brilliant aircraft are now reaching the end of their useful lives it seems to me that in its abiding attempt to achieve large scale cost savings from existing UK search and rescue activity that the Government has chosen to ignore dangers that privatising search and rescue activities could mean to the future saving of lives.
Whilst it is true that the proposed S-92 replacement aircraft can potentially go further and faster than the 34 year old aircraft that they will replace it is also worth noting that S-92 helicopters contain far less internal capacity than the Sea King and both aircraft have precious little in the way of redundancy. I also have particular difficulty in comprehending that while the private sector has been undertaking search and rescue activity in various countries such as Brazil, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia all of a sudden with fewer basis than are currently operational today (12 bases will come down to ten) that the private sector will be anything like as successful at saving lives as the combination of Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Maritimes and Coastguard Agency crews are today. Britain may not have the coastline of Australia but it has three times the population spread around and inside 10.5 thousand miles of nautical coastline, 1.25 million miles of nautical sea not to mention vast tracts of mountains and very difficult terrain.

Whilst one can accept the need to reduce search and rescue cost and to review operatio

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