SEVEN decades of the RAF and Royal Navy’s search-and-rescue service is coming to an end after the Government awarded a £1.6bn contract to a US-based company.
A spokesman for the RAF said individuals who wished to continue in search-and-rescue would have the opportunity to transfer to the privatised service, to be run by Bristow Helicopters
The Duke of Cambridge, a Flight Lieutenant based at RAF Valley in Anglesey in North Wales, who qualified as an operational search and rescue captain last year, will be among those affected.
In 2011 he is understood to have voiced his concern over privatisation plans to Prime Minister David Cameron when the pair met in Zurich, Switzerland, as part of England’s 2018 World Cup bid.
Under the new contract, 22 state-of-the-art helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK.
The shake-up will see the familiar yellow Sea King helicopters operated from RAF Leconfield in East Yorkshire replaced by new Sikorsky S-92s flying out of Humberside Airport by 2015.
Humber Rescue coxwain Dave Roberts said it was a sad day: “We have worked with the RAF for over 23 years. Their service is second to none. It’s a for profit organisation against a non-profit organisation. Will they be able to provide the service the RAF in Leconfield provides for us?
“They say it will be the same or quicker, but we will have to wait till 2015.”
Diving officer Brian Smith, from Hull British Sub-Aqua Club, said: “The RAF have given us a really good service over the years. It is a shame that the Government find it necessary to do this, but I am led to believe it should be business as usual with a new commercial venture.”
Tim Cain, chairman of Swaledale Mountain Rescue, said: “So long as there is a capability similar to existing capability we will be very happy.”
Under the new contract, 22 state-of-the-art helicopters, faster Sikorskys and Somerset-built AgustaWestland AW189s will be in operation.
While the closure of the Leconfield base could affect local suppliers, Bristow Helicopters says the opening of the new base in north Lincolnshire will be a boost to business there.
In total Bristow says the contract will create 350 jobs nationally.
Managing director Mike Imlach said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this very important contract and are looking forward to establishing our new base in Humberside.
“We will be making significant pre-operational investment in the base as we prepare to take over the UK SAR contract in 2015.
“Bristow Helicopters Ltd is committed to sourcing our infrastructure, ongoing maintenance and supplies locally, which will create new opportunities for businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises in the area.”
The Department for Transport said the new fleet would have a greater reach within one hour of take-off and flying times would be cut by around 20 per cent.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “Our SAR helicopter service plays a crucial role, saving lives and providing assistance to people in distress on both land and on sea.
“With 24 years of experience providing SAR helicopter services in the UK, the public can have great confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first-class service with state-of-the-art helicopters.”