An RAF Sea King: the craft will be withdrawn from 2012

An RAF Sea King: the craft will be withdrawn from 2012

The familiar yellow ‘paraffin budgies’ that have plucked thousands of stricken climbers and walkers from Britain’s mountains are set to disappear under a plan to privatise the country’s search and rescue helicopters.

A fleet of black and orange 167mph aircraft will replace the Sea Kings operated by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The new helicopters, to be introduced from 2012, will be run by a private consortium that includes the Royal Bank of Scotland, but with some Ministry of Defence crews.

The Royal Navys Sea Kings will no longer operate from HMS Gannet. Photo: Royal Navy

The Royal Navy's Sea Kings will no longer operate from HMS Gannet. Photo: Royal Navy

The Government today announced that the Soteria Consortium had won the bid to run the harmonised search and rescue helicopter service in a contract worth £6bn over 25 years. The group includes, in addition to the bank, French company Thales, Canadian Helicopter Corporation and Sikorsky. It will use Sikorsky S92A craft, similar to ones used by the Coastguard in Scotland.

These helicopters are bigger and faster than the ageing Sea Kings currently used by the RAF and Royal Navy, and can carry 10 passengers seated in crashworthy seating with one stretcher or six seated and two on stretchers in the search and rescue role. The helicopter has twin, high-speed winches which the Government says increases the efficiency and safety of rescuing people in danger; both winches are identical and rescue is possible using either.

The new service, with headquarters at Abbey Wood, Bristol, will be jointly managed by the Ministry of Defence and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It is understood military search and rescue helicopter crews will be reduced from 240 to 66, with civilian staff ‘trained to the same high standards’, according to the Ministry of Defence.

The Sikorsky S92A helicopters will be similar to those operated at present by the MCA at Stornoway and Sumburgh

The Sikorsky S92A helicopters will be similar to those operated at present by the MCA at Stornoway and Sumburgh

The four Coastguard search and rescue stations will be the first to come under the new regime, with the eight MoD bases following. It is likely HMS Gannet at Prestwick airport, from where the grey and red Royal Navy Sea Kings operate, will close, with operations transferred to Glasgow airport.

The contract for the new search and rescue helicopter service, one of the Government’s biggest ever privatisations, will be finalised later this year. At present, civilian rescues are carried out by the RAF, Royal Navy and Coastguard. Prince William is currently training to be an RAF search and rescue helicopter pilot.

MoD minister Quentin Davies said: “The new service, which will begin with a phased introduction which is anticipated to begin in 2012, will bring together the current search and rescue helicopter provision into one highly effective and harmonised service under a single contract providing the British taxpayer with an excellent service for many years to come.

“The future service will benefit from modern, fast, reliable helicopters and will continue to operate from 12 bases in order to ensure that it provides a fully effective SAR service.”

Paul Clark, the parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Transport, said: “The new harmonised service is an excellent opportunity to build upon the high regard that the UK SAR service is so rightly held. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency manage a SAR service from their four bases that has already been successfully delivered by a contractor for over 20 years and the new service will build on this proven track record.”

The cabin of a Coastguard Sikorsky S92A

The cabin of a Coastguard Sikorsky S92A

The Sikorsky S92A is used in the oil and gas industry and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on Shetland and the Isle of Lewis in northern Scotland.  The helicopter has a cruising speed of 145 knots (167mph, 269kph), with a radius of operation of more than 260 nautical miles (299 miles, 482km).

The aircraft is about 30 per cent faster and has approximately 70 nautical miles greater radius of operation than the Sea King. The cabin is more than 1.7m (5½ft) high, has a large door on its starboard side and a ramp at the rear which the MoD says will allow easy access for casualties and hospital care equipment such as incubators.

The SAR-H S92A has a purpose-built paramedic station including piped mains oxygen and an electrical power circuit within the cabin that allows immediate life-saving care to be administered.

The MoD says the fleet will be able to attend low-level overland night-time incidents which require pilots to use night-vision goggles. All helicopters will have forward looking infra-red equipment which enables the crew to search the terrain, over sea or land, in low light conditions.

Although the RAF and RN Sea Kings and their crews are primarily a military provision, about 90 per cent of their work is carried out supporting civilian operations such as the country’s mountain rescue teams.

The Coastguard’s four Sikorsky S92s were temporarily grounded in March last year after a safety scare. The aircraft were modified after a fatal crash involving an S92 in Newfoundland.

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