Privatising public services is not a new concept, but selling off a nation’s coastal and inland helicopter search and rescue (SAR) operation is a bold move.

The process of transferring the UK’s SAR provision from the military has rarely been an edifying one, however. It has seen a contract awarded then cancelled amid a criminal investigation; the surprise rejection of one bidder; and a whiff of told-you-so, job-protecting inevitability about the selection of one helicopter type.

Bristow Helicopters’ contract will commence on 1 April. It is the first time the company has embarked on a SAR operation of this scale, and it sees the 10-year award as a showcase. Get this one right, and similar deals will materialise across the globe.

But it has not been all plain sailing. AgustaWestland, one of the two airframers involved, has delivered its AW189 late, and it is an entirely unproven platform in the role. The site of one base covering the southeastern coast of England remains undecided, months before it should go live. And there are grumblings over the pay being offered to those transferring from the military.

Some of this can be dismissed as teething troubles, but whatever it takes, Bristow has to be ready.

The waters around the UK and its upland areas are as unforgiving as its media, and should there be a whiff of private sector incompetence about a bungled rescue the company will face unparalleled public scrutiny.

Source: Flight International