Review of UK Search & Rescue Helicopters

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United Kingdom Search & Rescue Helicopter Service

Her Majesty’s Coastguard’s (HMCG) Aviation Branch provides an aviation based Search and Rescue (SAR) service via the UK SAR Helicopter (UKSARH) Programme to all blue-light Category One emergency services, coordinated through the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC).

The UKSARH capability was transitioned from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) to Bristow Group in 2015.

In order to fulfil its mission at all hours of the day and night, in poor weather, high wind and in high sea states, UKSARH uses large all-weather helicopters that carry a winch capable of extracting people from the water. HMCG is the only UK blue-light organisation that maintains such a capability.

The UK Search and Rescue Helicopter (UKSARH) implementation represented a complex transformation of the UK’s aviation-based Search and Rescue (SAR) capability, introducing a number of major changes in the way the service was provided.

The transformation to the current UKSARH Programme involved:

Operations: A reduction from four operators to one with the aim of standardising operations across the UK.

Basing: A reduction from 12 airbases to 10, changes in airbase location, and creation of new aviation facilities at seven of these locations and a major refurbishment of the three facilities retained from the previous Coastguard contracts.

Equipment: A change from multiple legacy aircraft (Sea King variants, AW139 and S-92) to two aircraft (AW189 and S-92) with appropriate certification and seamless transition between capabilities.

Personnel: A change, for some areas of the UK, from military aircrew and ground crew to civilian personnel.

Governance: A change from military regulation under the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), including achieving CAA approval for the service.

Legislation: Addressing the impact of higher standards in how ‘place of safety’ is defined by legislation.

Risk Management: A change in process from Permissive Risk Environment to Managed Risk Environment.



QinetiQ conducted a comprehensive Post-Implementation Review (PIR) on behalf of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) to assess the effectiveness and performance of the transition to, and delivery of, the current UKSARH contract.

The PIR found that the UKSARH Programme has achieved a successful transition to a fully civilianised, rationalised operation with enhanced capability, while providing a seamless SAR service to the UK. The UKSARH contract is an effective mechanism for delivery of the SAR Helicopter (SARH) capability, providing continuity of service, allowing MCA to both manage risks and prevent significant financial exposure.

The PIR found that realisation of all 10 benefits identified in the UKSARH Benefits Realisation Plan1 is in progress, with five already being achieved in full. In addition, the overarching benefits of saving lives and replacing the aging fleet of Sea King aircraft, identified in the Business Case2, were also assessed as being fully achieved.

A number of additional unanticipated benefits were identified by the review, with UKSARH capability providing effective and essential augmentation to the UK’s medical and police services, particularly in remote areas of UK or during poor weather conditions.

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