UK SAR achieves ‘successful’ transition, according to review

The U.K.’s search-and-rescue helicopter (UKSARH) service has successfully transitioned to the current Bristow-operated model, but could still implement actions to ensure the service’s continued performance, according to a Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)-commissioned post-implementation review (PIR).

The UKSARH service’s aging fleet of Westland S-61 Sea King variants as well as its Leonardo AW139s have been replaced with a fleet of S-92 and AW189 aircraft. Greg Caygill Photo

Over four years ago, the search-and-rescue service transitioned from military- and Coastguard-operated aircraft to a service provided exclusively by Her Majesty’s Coastguard, operated by Bristow Helicopters Ltd.

The UKSARH service’s aging fleet of Westland S-61 Sea King variants as well as its Leonardo AW139s have been replaced with a fleet of Sikorsky S-92 and Leonardo AW189 aircraft, which are located across 10 bases.

The PIR, conducted by QinetiQ, found that the UKSARH program has successfully transitioned to a civilian, rational operation while providing “a seamless SAR service to the U.K.” with enhanced capabilities.

The transition to the current UKSARH program involved numerous changes in the way the service was provided, including changes to operations, basing, aircraft, personnel, governance, legislation and risk management.

“The service has been in place since 2015 and in that time, has been responsible for the rescue of thousands of lives,” said Nusrat Ghani, the minister responsible for the UKSARH service, and member of parliament of the U.K., in a statement published by the MCA on July 23. “I am proud of the work of our helicopter crews who routinely put their own lives at risk to rescue others.”

The PIR concludes that numerous anticipated benefits of the service have been met, or are on track to be met, and also highlights unanticipated benefits that could provide future growth opportunities.

The review found that “realization of all 10 benefits identified in the UKSARH Benefits Realization Plan is in progress, with five already being achieved in full.” In addition, the primary benefit of saving lives was assessed in the PIR as being achieved in full.

The UKSARH service has replaced the military Sea King service. It is provided solely by HM Coastguard, and operated by Bristow Helicopters Ltd. Greg Caygill Photo

The UKSARH program could also bring about unexpected benefits such as providing additional support to U.K. medical services; the program has supplemented helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) when dedicated capabilities were unavailable, the PIR stated.

The service also supports police helicopters in providing land search-and-rescue capabilities, as “police helicopters are prioritized towards local policing and crime plans.”


However, the PIR outlines a number of actions that could be implemented to ensure the availability, performance and safety of the service into the future.

The review recommends further exploration into the UKSARH’s casualty transfer process, as “there are occasions where UKSARH waits on the ground for a road ambulance to arrive, and thus is not available for other tasks,” the PIR states.

Aircrew training and availability is another area where the review recommends further exploration. “The pool of trained ex-military aircrew recruited when the service transitioned from military SAR is significantly reduced,” the PIR states. “It would be prudent to assess the SQEP [suitably qualified and experienced person] risks given the unusual nature of SARH flying and ensure operators are contractually obliged to undertake appropriate manpower planning.”

The PIR also outlines examples of how the service’s current helicopter capabilities could be further exploited to enhance its role, including the use of data from the forward looking infrared sensors to provide information on casualties, terrain and hazards.

The full post-implementation review can be viewed here.

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