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SAR 2011: Irish Coast Guard outlines SAR solution

14th April 2011 - 15:16 GMT | by The Shephard News Team

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As the UK considers a way forward for future SAR helicopter operations, the head of the Irish Coast Guard outlined how his organisation has approached the problem of recapitalising its own fleet.

Chris Reynolds, director of the Irish Coast Guard, told Shephard his organisation had adopted a simpler criteria-based model when choosing a bidder for its own new SAR helicopter contract, which was awarded to CHC in 2010.

'With our contract, we essentially wanted to continue with what we already had, but with new technology,' he said, 'It wasn't supposed to be a complete change in the way we do things as SAR-H was in the UK. It seems to have been a very long process, but if the UK needs to be looking at a new interim contract, they could look at how we did it.'

The Irish Coast Guard formed what was called the Future Helicopter Study Group (FHSG), which discussed the country's helicopter needs, looking at high-risk and low-risk areas - shipping routes, for example - before tendering, a process which attracted seven expressions of interest.

CHC walked away with the €500 million contract and the Irish Coast Guard is now set to receive five S-92s for the new 10-year contract - in contrast to the private finance initiative (PFI) process that was unsuccessfully followed for the SAR-H programme.

One aircraft will be delivered new from the Sikorsky factory at the end of this year, while the other four will as planned come from the currently running UK interim SAR contract currently flown by CHC from two bases at Sumbergh in the Shetlands and Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. The Irish contract is planned to be fully operational by July 2013.

In the meantime, it's still not clear which direction the UK government will turn to solve the issue created by the collapse of SAR-H earlier this year. CHC says it is in discussion with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency about the interim contract.

One source suggested to Shephard that the service life of the Sea King fleet might need to be extended to 2018, two years beyond its current out-of-service date. Such a decision would give time for the government to introduce another interim SAR contract and allow the Department of Transport time to re-examine the options for a possible 'son of SAR-H'.

Roderick Johnson, Chief Coastguard and assistant director of Coastal Safety at the UK MCA, said any decision was still subject to ministerial discussion, but added that the collapse of SAR-H had had no effect on the Coastguard's plans to modernise.

Johnson did say that the loss of the RAF's Nimrod fleet had left the Coastguard with a capability gap, as it was not always guaranteed that types like the C-130 or the E-3D Sentry would be available to provide top cover.

'Previously we could have just rung Kinloss and we would have had a Nimrod assisting us. Now if I need an E-3, it has to go through higher commands and we might not get the E-3, so we do have a capability gap there,' said Johnson.

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