Goodbye 771 Naval Air Squadron – UK search & rescue helicopter service goes private

After more than 40 years providing search and rescue (SAR) services across the UK, on 1st January 2016 771 Naval Air Squadron handed on responsibility to private contractor. Until now the MoD and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) have operated a 24-hour military and civil helicopter SAR service for the UK using around 40 RN and RAF Sea king Mk5s. 

Avoiding the inconvenient up-front cost of more than 20 new aircraft, the Labour government made the decision to use private finance to replace military SAR. The £1.6 Billion, 10-year contract was eventually awarded by the coalition government to American-owned Bristow Helicopters who are now responsible for coverage of 11,000 km of coastline, and 3.6 million square km of ocean.

The Royal Navy and RAF had an incredible track record of air/sea rescues. Culdrose-based helicopters alone typically flew around 400 operational sorties, rescuing more than 300 people in an average year. Sorties range from saving sailors from sinking vessels in severe storms through to airlifting stranded animals off cliffs. Thousands of sailors, fishermen, yachtsmen, swimmers, divers, climbers, walkers, holiday makers and many others owe their lives to this service. The astonishing history of UK military helicopter rescue is too long to detail here, but the aircrew have received numerous bravery awards for their work on an almost yearly basis.

Bristow has a good track record already, working with the Maritime & Coast Guard Agency for some time. With many ex-military pilots employed, and excellent new aircraft there is little doubt that the Helicopter Search and Rescue service will continue to be good. In the longer-term it remains to be seen how the need for Bristow to remain profitable will impact the quality of the service and whether they can match the record of RN and RAF.

Will civilians risk themselves and their aircraft in the same way that the military were prepared to do on occasions?

The RN Sea Kings were still in operation right up until the last day of 2015 and were still capable in the role. Unfortunately these fine aircraft could not keep going indefinitely. The maintenance time and cost required to keep elderly Sea Kings airborne is considerable and 22 new helicopters will supposedly have the same availability as 40 old ones.

Bristow will operate 2 types of helicopter, providing services based at airfields across the UK. 11 Sikorsky S-92s will be based in at Stornaway, Sumburgh, Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports. 11 smaller Agusta Westland AW189 helicopters will operate from Lee on Solent, Prestwick, St Athan, Inverness and Lydd airports. Bristow has invested considerably in the project, not just in aircraft but building completely new facilities at 7 out of the 10 sites it will fly from.

Naval aircrew meet their civilian replacements at handover ceremony at RNAS Culdrose. Note the size of the Sikorsky SH

Naval aircrew meet their civilian replacements after the handover ceremony at RNAS Culdrose.

The S-92 helicopter meets stringent safety standards and the US Federal Aviation Authority describes it as the “safest helicopter in the world”. It is faster than the Sea King at 145 knots and has a roomy, more comfortable cabin able to carry up to 21 people. It has a smaller radius of action but as their bases will be more dispersed, they should be able to provide similar coverage. The smaller AW189 can also make 145 knots, with a range of 200nm and capacity for 16 people.

Although civilian-operated SAR provision is common around the world, the UK had built up a great reserve of expertise and skill amongst its military and many consider the privatisation wasteful and unwise. The ideal solution would have been the continuation of military SAR and the replacement of Sea Kings with Merlin helicopters, common to the existing RN inventory but slightly modified for the role.

The end of 771 Naval Air Squadron means the RN losing a some very experienced aircrew. Some will retire, others will join the Merlin squadrons at Culdrose, instructing a new generation of RN pilots. 50 RAF and 15 RN aircrew have already transferred direct to Bristow in a “managed transition” agreed with the MoD. The valuable operational experience gained by complex and frequent rescue sorties is irreplaceable. Training exercises and simulators have great value but cannot always match the real thing. Of course the UK will continue to retain some military SAR expertise and all helicopter crews will still be taught the basics during initial training.

The welcome sight of the distinctive red and grey Sea Kings with “Royal Navy” emblazoned on the side also served as a useful reminder to the public of the naval service. As the RAF is well aware, aircraft that can be seen all over the UK act as flying adverts, keeping them in the public mind. With the cessation of RN SAR, this promotional benefit for the navy that is otherwise largely invisible to much of the nation, has been lost.