One of the Coastguard's new Sikorsky S-92s operated by Bristow. Photo: MCA

One of the Coastguard's new Sikorsky S-92s operated by Bristow. Photo: MCA

The UK’s civilian search and rescue helicopter was officially launched at one of the bases first in line to take over from the familiar Sea Kings of the RAF and Royal Navy.

Coastguard aircraft operated by a subsidiary of the Texas-based Bristow will gradually take on the duties formerly operated by military helicopters from 1 April.

Transport minister John Hayes joined representatives of the new service and guests at a ceremony at Humberside Airport today. The base, near Immingham, will be one of the first to become operational, along with one at Inverness.

The red and white Agusta-Westland and Sikorsky helicopters will provide support for the UK’s voluntary mountain rescue teams.

Mr Hayes said: “As the minister responsible for Her Majesty’s Coastguard, I am delighted to be in Humberside on this historic day when we are on the cusp of launching this new state-of-the-art helicopter service.

“Although I would clearly rather everyone avoid the circumstances where a search and rescue helicopter rescue is needed, I very much look forward to hearing about the professionalism and commitment that resides in all that work here and which will surely save lives from 1 April.”

Sir Alan Massey, chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, responsible for the Coastguard, said: “I am hugely proud that HM Coastguard has been entrusted with the UK’s search and rescue helicopter service. For us this is a continuation of the high-quality service that we have been providing in selected areas of the UK for the last 30 years.”

The Coastguard has operated four search and rescue bases at Lee-on-Solent, Portland, Sumburgh and Stornoway, the last providing support for mountain rescue teams in north-west Scotland.

The Royal Navy Sea Kings operating from HMS Gannet are the nation's busiest. Photo: Stuart Hill/MoD/Crown Copyright

The Royal Navy Sea Kings operating from HMS Gannet are the nation's busiest. Photo: Stuart Hill/MoD/Crown Copyright

Sir Alan said: “The RAF and RN have set the bar incredibly high, and I would like to thank them for their service and recognise the outstanding work they have done both inland and on the coast over many decades. We will take their legacy forward with the utmost pride and care.”

The bases at Caernarfon and in Kent will start operating on 1 July 2015, followed by St Athan on 1 October 2015. Prestwick and Newquay will become operational on 1 January 2016 and the remaining three bases at Lee-on-Solent, Sumburgh and Stornoway will follow in 2017.

Samantha Willenbacher, director of UK Search and Rescue at Bristow Helicopters, said: “It is an honour to have been chosen to deliver this vital service across the UK. We know this is a service that people rely on in times of great need and we are committed to continuing the great work of the military.

“We have enormous respect for the dedication that our military colleagues have demonstrated in delivering search and rescue over the past 70 years and we have always understood how vital it is that their knowledge and expertise is maintained.

“We have worked closely with them in preparing for the civilian service to go live and have also welcomed many of them into the new civilian SAR force, including chief pilot here at Humberside Liz Forsyth, a former SAR commander at RAF Lossiemouth and pilot flight commander at RAF Valley.

The ageing RAF Sea Kings will be taken out of service

The ageing RAF Sea Kings will be taken out of service

“I would like to thank the local community in and around Humberside for making us feel so welcome and to thank Humberside Airport for their ongoing support. We look forward to the base going live and will continue to strive to deliver the best possible SAR helicopter service to the UK.”

Bristow won the £1.6bn contract to provide the service under a scheme first announced by the previous Labour Government.

The plans were hit in 2011 by irregularities involving the preferred bidder Soteria and were put on ice. The Government announced in 2013 that Bristow, which has operated helicopters for the oil industry for 60 years, along with the existing search and rescue service for the Coastguard.

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