Bristow Helicopters

Bristow Helicopters Limited awarded 1.6 Billion pound contract to provide SAR to the U.K. (Photo: Bristow Group)

The U.S. Bristow Group announced today that the United Kingdom has awarded its British affiliate a new contract to provide civilian Search and Rescue services for the entire U.K.  Beginning in 2015, Bristow will begin the transition across Britain from the twelve RAF-run bases to ten wholly operated by British Helicopters Limited. The contract allows for 22 new aircraft spread across the ten bases (two for each) and two training helicopters available for support.  I’ve been getting emails about it all day.

Bristow had been previously awarded a “Gap” SAR services contract beginning in July of this year, so if you find yourself calling in for a rescue off northern Scotland later this year, don’t be surprised to see a shiny new red and white helicopter hovering over your stern.  The familiar RAF yellow Sea King is on the way out, along with Prince William and his friends.  While those of you most directly affected by the change (and the 1.6 billion pound price tag) argue over the benefits (or not) of the privatization of search and rescue – I’m left wondering if it will work.

Contract search and rescue is nothing new, of course, and this isn’t Bristow’s first rescue contract, but it is definitely the largest and broadest SAR contract of its kind.  Bristow (and others like VIH Cougar) have been providing offshore and remote rescue services to the oil and gas companies of the world for awhile now.  But while handing over all helicopter operations to a contractor on such a large scale is a new experiment, it isn’t something that hasn’t been discussed.

Personally, I always thought the limit would be liability insurance.  Governments are protected from litigation in a number of ways from both the rescued and rescuers alike. I would never have considered suing my employer (the U.S. Coast Guard) for damages when my otherwise good friend got distracted and hoisted my head into the ceiling of our Sikorsky H-60 during a training mission. I’m told I have a bulging disc in my cervical spine – but hey, that’s why they called it “service” and I get the discount at the local hardware store, right?   I wonder if part of that 1.6 billion includes a team of lawyers to stand by when the first couple they rescue from a ketch sue them for pulling out the husband’s hip during the hoist?

However, there may be some real advantages to full-blown contract SAR for a nation. Apparently, the British government found that one is saving money. The contract price is apparently less than the expected cost of buying 22 of their own new helicopters and paying all those government salaries (and retirements, like mine) to keep them operating.  But are there others?  I think there might be, and while many I’ve spoken to this afternoon believe it’s a world gone mad, I’m holding out judgment until at least the first couple of years of full operation because there may be value in the stability.

Call Mayday off southern California and the crew that comes to look for you may be made up of four guys who have fewer than two years flying over those waters.  The crew will have a mix of experience and at least one of the crew will be an experienced flyer from a previous unit, but every four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, everyone has to transfer.  A full quarter of a military-operated search and rescue unit leaves every year, and a mix of new operators (from other units and a few fresh out of school) take their place.  It’s a function of military rotation.

Who would you rather have flying you back through the fog on a stormy night:  a newly-qualified pilot on his eighth search and rescue mission, or a seven-year veteran who has made that same stormy approach to the same home base hundreds of times?  Bristow will have the ability to put aircrews together and keep them together for years. Trust me, I’ve been there – unit cohesion and personal dynamics can matter a great deal.  If I could hand-pick the best search and rescue team available in the U.S., I really couldn’t. They may be at different units, no longer available, or forced into retirement due to advancement issues unrelated to their abilities.  A profit-driven organization can set their own rules.  They have the ability to keep the best and dump the rest in a way that a military organization simply cannot.

In the time it’s taken me to write this post I’ve received three more emails from friends asking me to weigh in, and whether I think the U.S. is next in line to privatize search and rescue. I don’t think so – but I’m not ready to cry havoc and say that it is an entirely bad idea.   It may actually makes things better.  What I do know is that if I ever call Mayday, I won’t care who you send so long as they get me out of there alive.  As for the color of the helicopter, paint it pink for all I care.  If anyone has any arguments for why the contracting of SAR is a bad idea, I’d love to hear them. After a lifetime on the job, I can’t think of any.

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  • Mike

    My question about contracted SAR is about rescue swimmers. I can understand contracted pilots but it is hard to believe that rescue swimmers on a commercial contract would go through the same kind of training and be as effective as rescue swimmers from a military service. Does anyone know what kind of training and requirements there will be for rescue swimmers for this contract, or if it even includes rescue swimmers at all? Beyond that I don’t think it is such a bad thing. In the US we are so used to a large and capable Coast Guard to come to the Rescue but in England look at how effective the Royal National Lifeboat Institution as a charity. It proves that it doesn’t take a government institution to be effective in a public services role.

  • Mario Vittone

    That might be a real problem here in the U.S. – but we are also one of the few who have “swimmers” who leave the rescue hook and operate in the open ocean. An RAF SAR Winchman is a paramedic who stays hooked to the aircraft for all but the rarest of circumstances when operating in water. I don’t think finding or finding and training qualified Winchman will be a problem for a contractor.

    • Mike

      Thank you for clearing that up. Maybe its a difference in fundamental doctrine but I believe that a rescue swimmer is a very important asset. I mean the whole reason that the USCG developed the rescue swimmer program is because they found without rescue swimmers they were less effective at Air Sea Rescue. If the current RAF system is as effective though I see no reason that the contractors couldn’t have qualified crews and be cost effective.

  • Alex John

    This may actually be considered as an extension of current operations.

    Firstly, it is worth noting that current SAR is not provided exclusively by the RAF. The RAF operates six bases, the Royal Navy operates two, and the Coastguard operates four. The four Coastguard services are already provided under contract by CHC Helicopter. Unlike the US Coastguard, HM Coastguard is a service that is tasked with co-ordinating air-sea rescue. It has no policing or regulatory mandate (the latter is done by the MCA, the Coastguard’s parent agency).

    Also, these services are not exclusively sea based – they operate throughout mainland UK. RN, RAF & Coastguard helicopter regularly engage in mountain rescue operations across the UK and often act as Air Ambulances, particularly to remote scottish islands.

    One thing that should be taken into consideration is the age of the RN/RAF’s SAR helicopter fleet. They are using Westland SeaKings with many over 40+ years old and are in need of replacing. With a limited defence budget, the government has probably factored in the cost of additional military helicopters which inevitably would be more expensive than their civilian counterparts. Additionally, the 10 AgustaWestland 189s will almost certainly be built in Yeovil, thus providing work for the factory that has no new military orders on the horizon.

    As a Brit, I’m more worried about the loss of capability. When this contract come into effect, the military will only maintain a minimal SAR capability, with the only operational bases likely to be overseas – Cyprus and the Falkland Islands. By implication, this also implies a loss of institutional knowledge and experience.

    • Mario Vittone

      All very good points. I believe it was the expense of replacing the Sea Kings that promoted the notion to contract helicopters and crews vice funding the upgrade internally. You are spot on with the loss of institutional knowledge – but I can’t help but think – who will be manning the aircraft? Isn’t it likely to be some of the same folks who recently flew SAR for the services you mentioned in any case? Many a USCG rescue pilot now fly for companies like Bristow and Cougar right now. They brought there knowledge with them.

    • Mario Vittone

      Like firefighters who run into burning buildings? I believe those who take the job will do it because they love it. You’re not going to get rich as a Winchman – working for a contractor or not, you’re doing that for love.

      • J

        Exactly. You hit the nail Mario!

  • revolutionary9

    Why not have private companies run everything since they already control the economy? Then you can go to the company to get your pension check, health care, mail, medicine hell even your drivers liscense. Of course you will pay more taxes, higher prices for products and services and be screwed more royally then you are now. Instead we should be thinking about the fact that the workers built and operate this system that tries to suck you dry until the day you die and afterward with you having no say in the matter except when you vote which is an exercise in futility under capitalism. It is about time the working people took responsibility for the show because the capitalists sure as hell are not unless you want to live in Greece or Cypyrus to find out.

  • J

    In sweden we made the same change – from military to civilian contract – in 2002. There´s been, and still is, lots of discussion about this. But from a SAR point of view there been some benefits. First: rules made it to expensive for the military to keep 24H service. The responsetime is got a lot better with civilian SAR (15 minutes 24/7 instead of 1h at office hours, 2 h at night). Second: the helicopter is strictly SAR now. Instead of combined military and SAR. It made the SAR crews more professional and competent in SAR duty. Three: this is now a job, not a step in a military career. Many of our crew are, just like you said, ex military so no acutal loss of knowledge occured during the transition. I belive the military did a good job, but I find it even better now.

    But, because of shortsighted contracts we had problems arising from unsuitable terms in the contract. So last year the swedish government simply bought the whole company providing the service, and that´s how we run it today – As a company owned by the government. They simply couldnt afford the risk of the company going bankrupt due to other ventures, and loose the SAR capability. So – we´re standing with one feet in every world now. We will be incorporated in the maritime adminstration soon, and become government controlled and employed wich will give us the benefit of having a “safe” ownership. But it will be purly SAR, with no other interests with benefits of this being the pinnacle of a career, not a steppingstone or an assignment.

    Hope this could shine some light on the matter. All the best to the future crews of bristow SAR.

    • Mario Vittone

      Excellent points. Thanks for the comments.

  • Robert Rustchak

    Mr Vittone makes very valid points concerning talent pool, institutional knowledge and experience. I have philosophical problems with privatization of what should be an inherent function of government — protection of its citizens. Not to say that the function should be performed by a military organization… the Canadian model works wonderfully, and perhaps should be examined by us here in the US. I was about to draw a scenario illustrating potential problems with failures of or by a corporation providing essential services, but J above did it for me already. I rather like the system the Swedes ended up with, and there is ample precedent for such a model in the US.

  • Rick Ansell

    To expand on the Irish CG Rescue service a little, it may be of interest to people to note that if a Rescue Helicopter is needed in parts of Northern Ireland it will be an Irish Coastguard (Contract) helicopter that will arrive. Similarly there are circumstances where an incident in Ireland or its waters will be dealt with by a UK helicopter. It all depends on who will get there quickest.

    Continuing the theme – the RNLI provides Lifeboat services to both the UK and Ireland, although unlike the situation in the UK, the Irish Government provides some funding for the Irish stations as donations in Ireland (which are ring-fenced for use in that country) are insufficient to cover the costs of the stations.

    Returning to the helicopters, the UK military will be retaining a Combat Search and Rescue capability, as well as a Maritime capability (for a start, the new Queen Elizabeth class will require this during flying Ops). Past statements have suggested that if required service personnel could be seconded to the contractors staff, much as US military personnel fly with the UK forces and vice-versa.

    My understanding is that part of the reason that the military will no longer be doing routine Civilian SAR is that the optimum aircraft and skills for Combat and Civilian SAR differ significantly. There is therefore both a procurement (which aircraft to buy) and training issue. The crews on Civilian SAR stations would not be current on Combat SAR Ops as they would be trained on different aircraft and have focused on different types of rescue of different types of casualties – whilst there is of course ‘read-across’ you can be at the peak of training for one type of task or the other, not both.

    To show the difference, current UK Combat Rescue in Afghanistan involves co-operation with the Attack Helicopters and is carried out in a Chinook with a Medical Emergency Response Team [MERT] (effectively a lightweight Trauma Team, with equipment) and a team of ground troops (to recover the casualty(s) and protect the aircraft on the ground) in the cargo bay. Different skills, a different crew composition and a different aircraft are required.

    The MOD has stated that it believes that all the required skills can be retained without the military being involved in routine Civilian SAR. Remember that the reason for the existing Contract CG Helicopter stations is that the military felt it could no longer justify or fund so many stations.

    It is also worth noting that the UK Maritime SAR capability is used for land incidents, including Mountain Rescue, much more than I understand USCG aircraft are. The fact that no part of the UK is more than 70 miles from the sea probably has something to do with this.

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