Bristow Helicopters could be forced to use Sikorsky S-92s as an interim replacement for the AgustaWestland AW189 on its flagship UK search and rescue contract if sufficient numbers of the latter cannot be delivered in time.
The operator is due to begin taking over the SAR work from the UK armed forces next year coinciding with the phased retirement of the nation’s Westland Sea King fleet. Two bases – Inverness and Humberside – are due to go live on 1 April.
A pair of 8.3t AW189s are due to be based at Inverness - which takes on SAR responsibilities from the Royal Air Force’s 202 Sqn based at Lossiemouth – with a third airframe located there for training.
However, AgustaWestland is yet to obtain certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency for the SAR variant of the AW189. In October it indicated that it would be able to deliver a maximum of two of the SAR-roled helicopters to Bristow this year, with the second of these likely to push into 2015.
That gives the operator only a small window in which to complete training on the new helicopters before the 1 April deadline.
“Bristow has started work to prepare the AW189 for UK SAR. We are looking forward to its introduction to UK SAR but equally have robust contingency plans in the event the aircraft is not ready to start operations on 1 April 2015,” it says.
That contingency would see it instead begin operations at Inverness using the bigger S-92, it says, which it is also deploying to five other bases on the 10-year £1.6 billion ($2.5 billion) contract.
There are also signs that smaller AW139s - which are non-compliant with the contract specifications - are also being prepared as back-up with recent sightings of an initial example bearing HM Coastguard markings performing test flights in Italy.
But there are signs that the first delivery of a SAR-roled AW189 may be imminent. Images of a completed example bearing an AgustaWestland pre-delivery registration (I-EASN) at Bristow’s Norwich facility in the east of the UK were recently posted on internet forums.
Although AgustaWestland intends to build the majority of the UK’s SAR fleet at its Yeovil plant, the initial example has been assembled at its Vergiate factory in Italy.
Meanwhile, construction of new facilities at both Inverness and Humberside are on schedule, says Bristow, with “pre-operational activity” due to commence at both sites on 5 January which “will include engagement and training with SAR partners”, it says, including the emergency services and mountain rescue teams.
One further detail remains to be ironed out, however. Bristow had planned to use Manston airport in Kent from 1 July 2015 as a base for two AW189s to take over missions previously conducted by the RAF’s 22 Sqn from Wattisham airfield.
But with the closure of Manston in May this year and the subsequent sale of the site for redevelopment, Bristow has been searching for a suitable alternative. It says “it will execute a contingency plan” to ensure SAR coverage in the region and will make an announcement “ in due course”.
Crew training is also on track, including work with night-vision goggles, ahead of the 1 April start date, it says.
According to figures released by the Ministry of Defence under a freedom of information request, around 20 RAF pilots and 30 rear crew have been allowed to move across to Bristow under a process referred to as managed transition. Approximately five Royal Navy pilots and 10 rear crew are also covered by the same process.
Bristow intends to operate a total of 11 AW189s and 11 S-92s for the contract.