Smaller air rescue fleet 'will have more helicopters in use'
The fleet of search-and-rescue helicopters covering the British coast will be almost halved under the terms of the privatisation deal struck by the Government, it has emerged.
The £1.6 billion contract with Texas-based firm Bristow will leave Newquay as the sole emergency service base on the Westcountry coast.
Due to come into effect in 2015, the 10-year deal brings to an end 70 years of rescue operations run by the RAF and Royal Navy squadrons.
Military helicopters will be withdrawn from RNAS Culdrose, near Helston, Cornwall, and RMB Chivenor, near Braunton, North Devon. The civilian search-and-rescue helicopter based at Portland, Dorset, is also being lost.
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It will mean the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) 40-strong fleet of Sea Kings being replaced by 22 new, faster helicopters provided by Bristow.
South Dorset Conservative MP Richard Drax, who's campaigned to keep the Portland base open, warned: "I don't care how fast they are, if they are tasked elsewhere, and you have less helicopters, what helicopter is going to come and do the job? So by cutting the number of helicopters, that's a risk.
"The less helicopters and bases you have, the more likely a rescue helicopter will be on another task and will not be able to get where it's needed, were there more helicopters and more bases."
He added: "The integrity of search and rescue, by removing Portland, will be harmed, and my fear is – and I don't want to be alarmist – that lives will be lost. Helicopters are notorious for breaking down, because there are so many working parts."
Bristow Helicopters said there would be no additional aircraft to replace any taken out of service.
But it said the helicopters would be kept fully-maintained and ready to fly.
It expects 20 of the new helicopters to be used for frontline rescue operations, with two used for training or maintenance at any one time.
The MoD said there were 16 operational Royal Navy and RAF Sea Kings – two at each of the eight current bases. The rest, it said, were in deep maintenance, used for training or based overseas, and were not available for operations.
The Government has always insisted the new deal would improve the rescue service, despite widespread concerns.
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, approximately 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, approximately 85 per cent of the same area would be reached within this time frame."