The number of search-and-rescue helicopters is expected to be cut from 40 to 22 after the service is privatised, it emerged today.
The Ministry of Defence’s ageing fleet of 40 Sea King helicopters will be retired and replaced with fewer but faster models provided by Texas-based Bristow Helicopters. But the Government insists the service to the public will improve. Under the £1.6bn deal announced on Tuesday, AgustaWestland and Sikorsky aircraft will take the place of the Sea Kings when the RAF and Royal Navy’s 70-year search-and-rescue role ends in 2015.
Richard Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, fears relying on fewer helicopters could put lives at risk. “However fast it is, one helicopter can only be in one place at one time. So by cutting the number of helicopters, that’s a risk,” he said. The MoD said frontline services would not be affected by the cut in numbers as only 16 of the existing Sea Kings are deployed on search missions, with others undergoing maintenance or used for training.
The Department for Transport said: “There will be an overall improvement in flying times to incidents of around 20 per cent (from 23 to 19 minutes). Presently, about 70 per cent of high and very high-risk areas within the UK search-and-rescue region are reachable by helicopter within 30 minutes.
“Under the new contract, [about] 85 per cent of the same area would be reached within this time.”