China and Thailand are seeking new helicopters as part of efforts to improve their search and rescue (SAR) capabilities.

Manufacturers expect China's ministry of communications to begin a competition for two heavy SAR helicopters within 12 months. Thailand's aviation department wants at least two medium-size SAR helicopters ahead of the planned 2005 opening of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International airport.

The Chinese acquisition would mark the second phase of a national SAR plan that envisages helicopters operating from three locations. The communications ministry began operating two Sikorsky S-76s from Shanghai in 2001, but is looking at larger helicopters for a planned Yantai base to cover the Yellow Sea. The ministry plans to base helicopters in Guangdong to cover the South China Sea.

Sikorsky is pitching the new S-92 and believes its link with China's Changhe Aircraft could give it an edge over the AgustaWestland EH101 and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma. Changhe builds the S-92's tail pylon and horizontal stabiliser.

In Thailand, several manufacturers have been asked for preliminary information for a potential SAR requirement, but a formal tender awaits budgetary approval. Candidates include variants of the Bell 412, Eurocopter AS532 Cougar and Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk.

Thailand's air force, which has a fleet of combat SAR helicopters, is likely to operate the new helicopters, but funds for the purchase will come from outside the defence budget.

Initial procurement is likely to be for two to five aircraft, including at least one for Suvarnabhumi. Thailand wants to provide national coverage, with helicopters potentially at eight air force bases.

Source: Flight International