Bristow wins £1.6bn UK search and rescue deal

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A long-running procurement programme to outsource and modernise the UK's search and rescue helicopter operations has finally ended with the award of a £1.6 billion contract to US-owned Bristow Helicopters.

To replace the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force AgustaWestland Sea King fleets, from 2015 Bristow will bring in new AgustaWestland AW189s and Sikorsky S-92s, says the UK Department for Transport (DfT) announcing the award on 26 March. The new operation will be fully active from 2017, it adds.

The 10-year deal, so-called Long SAR, will see helicopters based at a total of 10 sites across the UK. A pair of S-92s will each operate from Stornoway in the Western Isles and Sumburgh in Shetland - existing bases for S-92s under the Gap SAR contract operated by Bristow from this summer - and new locations at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports.

The AW189s, again two per base, will be stationed at Lee on Solent and Prestwick, and new sites at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports.

An additional two airframes, one of each type, will be used as spares. Bristow estimates the total capital spend on the new helicopters as being in the region of $1 billion.

Proposing the super-medium AW189 to perform the shorter-range missions comes as little surprise following AgustaWestland's pledge to create search and rescue helicopter manufacturing capability at its Yeovil, UK factory if it was chosen by the successful operator. This also saw off a potential challenge from Eurocopter's EC175, which was not offered by any bidder.

DfT claims the new contract will see the creation of over 350 jobs at Yeovil and at a supply hub Sikorsky will locate at Aberdeen to support the S-92 fleet.

Additionally it claims that coverage and reaction speed will be improved by the new operation.

Bristow beat off competition in the final round of the process from UK firm Bond Offshore Helicopters which had solely bid on the short-range element of the contract with the AW189. Canada's CHC Helicopter had been forced to retire from the bidding in December.

The operator says it will earn around $2.5 billion in revenue over the duration of the contract.

A previous contest, SAR-H, was abandoned in February 2011 after the DfT discovered "irregularities" in the bidding process which had seen a contract awarded in 2010 to the Soteria consortium comprising CHC, Sikorsky and Thales.

Current SAR bases are at Culdrose, Wattisham, Valley, Boulmer, Portland, Lee on Solent, Chivenor, Leconfield, Lossiemouth and Prestwick.