The new UK Coastguard search and rescue helicopter base at London Ashford Airport, Kent, began operations on Friday August 14. The base was officially on standby to receive taskings from the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre from 1300hrs.
Bristow Helicopters Ltd is operating the SAR helicopter service on behalf of HM Coastguard after being awarded a ten year UK SAR contract by the Department for Transport in March 2013. The AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters in their distinctive red and white HM Coastguard livery had already become a familiar sight, with training operations from the base having commenced some weeks earlier. The AW139s are being used as an interim measure, due to delays in certification of the AW189, eleven of which have been ordered by Bristow for the UK SAR contract, for which it will also use eleven Sikorsky S-92s.
The new Lydd base’s Chief Pilot is Captain Neil Robertson, a former Sea King pilot whose 17 year career in the RAF saw him serve as Flight Commander at RAF Wattisham’s SAR unit in Suffolk. The new operation at Lydd replaces the SAR service at Wattisham, previously operated by the Royal Air Force’s 22 Squadron B Flight using two Sea King HAR3As. Since leaving the military, Captain Robertson has spent the past six years flying offshore in support of oil and gas operations in the North Sea and most recently supporting SAR training and preparations for the new civilian SAR service going live.
The SAR helicopter base at London Ashford Airport is one of ten bases from which the UK SAR contract will be delivered. The first two of these bases, at Humberside and Inverness, began operations on April 1, 2015 with a base at Caernarfon in Wales following on July 1. Bristow Helicopters also currently provides SAR services on behalf of HM Coastguard at Stornoway, in the Western Isles and Sumburgh, in Shetland which will continue throughout the UK SAR contract.
The Lydd base had been due to go live on July 1, but had been slightly delayed. The next SAR base to be opened by Bristow will be at St Athan, Wales, on October 1. Additional bases at Prestwick, Scotland, and Newquay, Cornwall, will then come on-line on January 1, 2016. The existing Maritime and Coastguard Agency base at Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire, will become part of the new SAR contract as from April 1, 2017. On the same day, the existing Bristow base at Sumburgh will join the new programme, while another of the current Bristow bases, Stornoway, will be the final one to join the new SAR service, on July 1, 2017.