Eurocopter pledging Aberdeen 'centre of excellence' if it clinches UK SAR contract

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Eurocopter promises to turn its logistics and training base in Aberdeen, Scotland into a "centre of excellence" for search and rescue (SAR) work if it is successful in its bid to supply helicopters under the UK's SAR contest.

The base would undertake integration and customisation work for specific SAR equipment and provide operational training and logistics support beyond that required by the UK, it says.

Speaking at a 26 June press briefing in Marseille, Olivier Michalon, Eurocopter vice-president sales and customer relations for Europe and Central Asia, described the contest as "a key strategic project" for the manufacturer.

"I think whichever [helicopters] are selected will be seen as a benchmark and a reference point. Other countries are looking to modernise their SAR capability and will look at what the UK has done and which aircraft has been selected."

Markus Steinke, managing director Eurocopter UK, adds: "Eurocopter is totally committed to the UK and we are aware of our role and what we need to bring to the country."

The company points out it is the only manufacturer which can supply helicopters to cover the requirement for both short- and long-range missions under the contest.

It is pitching its in-development EC175 medium twin alongside the established EC225 platform. However, with the 10 May North Sea ditching of an EC225 operated by Bond Helicopters still under investigation - early signs point to a main gearbox failure - Eurocopter is assuming the role of "underdog", says Michalon.

A Eurocopter EC225

Steinke adds: "It doesn't help to have had this incident, particularly when it's in an environment where [SAR missions] will later operate." But, he notes, other potential suppliers have also lost aircraft in similar environments.

As a result of the ditching, Eurocopter is substantially increasing its operation in Aberdeen as it moves to reassure operators over the incident. "After these things you are normally stronger than before," argues Steinke.

The decade-long contract will cover SAR provision from 10 bases - down from 12 under the now-abandoned SAR-H contest - with a decision likely to be announced by the UK Department for Transport in March 2013.

Operators will bid on three lots, the first two covering the provision of either short- or long-range services - in excess of 200nm (370km) - and the third encompassing both.

Bidders include Bond, Bristow Group, CHC Scotia and Nordzee Helikopters Vlaanderen.