Page last updated at 20:54 GMT, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Private firm to run search and rescue helicopters

RAF Valley rescue helicopter
Sea King helicopters are coming to the end of their working life

A major shake-up of the UK's search and rescue helicopter service has been announced by the government.

The 24-hour service will be run by private consortium Soteria from 2012, from 12 bases across the UK.

This service is currently provided by the RAF and Royal Navy, plus civilian helicopters through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

Soteria will provide new aircraft to replace the ageing military Sea King helicopters over a three-year period.

The contract is worth £6bn over 25 years and will see the number of military aircrew reduced from 240 to 66, with civilian aircrew making up the shortfall.

'Improved performance'

In a written statement to MPs, junior defence minister Quentin Davies said the government was working with Soteria to finalise the contract, which would be awarded later in 2010.

Mr Davies said: "The entire fleet of modern helicopters, some 30% faster than the current Sea Kings, will be able to attend low-level overland night-time incidents.

"They will have forward-looking infra-red equipment and be fitted with fully integrated de-icing equipment for much improved performance in severe winter conditions, thus providing the UK with an excellent search and rescue helicopter service with the ability to save lives well into the future."

At a news conference, the minister rejected suggestions that handing the service over to a private firm would put the public at risk.

The Soteria consortium - which is made up of French defence company Thales, helicopter operator CHC and the Royal Bank of Scotland - plans to use the Sikorsky S92 helicopter.

Operations move

Meanwhile, BBC Scotland has learned that the service from one of the search and rescue bases in Scotland, HMS Gannet at Prestwick, is to be transferred to Glasgow Airport, placing the Ayrshire base under threat. More than 100 people are based there.

Central Ayrshire MP Brian Donohoe said he was assured by a government minister that Gannet was safe, before learning that operations were to be moved to Glasgow Airport.

"I'm speechless," he said. "The reasons for moving search and rescue from Gannet are completely flawed. It will mean the end of Gannet because search and rescue is 90% of what it does."

Aviation writer Jim Ferguson told the BBC he was confident it would provide a good service.

"The new helicopters will be black and orange and they'll probably be a bit noisier than what you are used to - they are faster, they are more powerful, there will be changes in operating proceedings.

"But Britain has arguably got one of the finest search and rescue helicopter organisations in the world.

"It's built up over the past 60-odd years and I'm fairly sure, having flown in an S92 and knowing members of the consortium, they will do just as well as the existing organisation."

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