Fort William to be site of new seasonal rescue chopper base

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Local Coastguard teams have welcomed news that Fort William is to be home to one of two new seasonal rescue helicopter bases newly announced by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

The MCA, an executive agency of the Department for Transport, confirmed it has signed a circa £1.6 billion contract with UK company Bristow Helicopters Ltd following an extensive 18-month procurement process.

Minister for Maritime and Aviation, Robert Courts MP, last week announced the contract for the UK Second-Generation Search and Rescue Aviation programme – known as UKSAR2G – would be awarded to Bristow Helicopters Ltd to deliver both rotary and fixed wing services for the next decade.

Bristow has provided the UK search and rescue helicopter service for the MCA since 2013 and the new contract will see the UK search and rescue region benefit from both innovation and advances in technology to save more lives, even more quickly.

It will combine the existing two separate aviation contracts for both fixed wing aircraft and rotary aircraft. It will also include the use of drones.

As part of the new contract, Bristow will continue to operate from their current 10 helicopter bases and will open two new seasonal bases in Fort William and Carlisle, to serve areas around two of the busiest locations for summer tourism.

All helicopter bases will continue to be operational 24 hours a day, including those at Inverness and Stornoway.

The Fort William and Carlisle sites will operate 12 hours a day from April to September with the transition to the new contract starting in September 2024.

The air assets which will be based at the new Fort William base will be available to be deployed anywhere that is required within their fuel  range, which can include the Oban and Argyll areas.

Under the contract, Bristow will operate 18 helicopters including existing Leonardo AW189s and Sikorsky S92As, augmented with the introduction of Leonardo AW139 helicopters.

There will also be six King Air fixed-wing planes and one mobile deployable Schiebel S-100 drone system.

Drones became part of HM Coastguard’s aviation fleet in March this year and are currently deployed supporting search and rescue activity in the English Channel.

The MCA says Bristow will  continue to build upon this to enhance situational awareness for emergency responders as part of UKSAR2G.

Colin Laing, Senior Coastal operations officer for the Coastguard’s Area 18, which covers the Western Isles, Skye and Lochaber, said he and fellow members of the area management team welcomed the announcement.

‘I can confirm that the area management team of the HMC Coastal operations for Area 18 Western Isles Skye and Lochaber,  welcomes the announcement of the awarding of the search and rescue helicopter contract to Bristow once again and looks forwards to continuing to work closely with the experienced pilots, winchmen and paramedics, operating  this vital aerial asset.

‘It is especially welcome and exciting that an extra seasonal helicopter will be provided at Fort William  to provide  very welcome extra cover from April to September.

‘The Skye and Kyle land based coastal rescue  teams will be holding a familiarisation session with  Rescue  helicopter  948 (Stornoway ) at Portree Helicopter landing site  on Saturday August 6 to cement that relationship.’