End of an era as Search and Rescue is privatised

A Sea King helicopter Credit: Eye Ubiquitous/Press Association Images

It will be the end of an era when the UK's search and rescue service is privatised.

The announcement this morning that the service has been awarded to an American firm will bring to an end seven decades of service by the military which, for more than 40 years, has made dramatic rescues at sea using those distinctive Sea King helicopters.

The Search and Rescue Service (SAR) is currently provided from 12 bases around the UK (6 RAF, 2 Royal Navy, 4 Maritime and Coastguard Agency). It includes RAF Valley on Anglesey from where the Duke of Cambridge works as Flight Lieutenant Wales.

But the Sea King helicopters used by the military are ageing. They reach the end of their operational life in 2016. And for every hour they spend in the air - they require 30 minutes maintenance on the ground.

The new service has been divided into two contracts (Lot 1 and Lot 2) and both have gone to the same company.

On one contract, it'll operate US-built Sikorsky helicopters. On the other, helicopters made by the British-based firm AgustaWestland. The firm is based in Yeovil in Somerset.

But the privatised service will protect the same length of coastline and the same area of sea using 2 fewer bases.

Some MPs with coastal constituencies (particularly those which border the busy shipping lanes and yachting playgrounds in the south of England) have raised concerns.

On an island nation with more than 10 thousand miles of coastline, the SAR service is called upon around two thousand times per year.

Prince William, however, is unlikely to have his contract transferred to an American firm. When the contract starts in 2015, Flight Lieutenant Wales is expected to be moved to another role in the British military.