Search and rescue (SAR) coverage for RAAF flying operations from five air force bases around the country will continue to be provided by CHC Helicopter under a 30-month contract extension announced in mid-April.
Under the extension which actually came into effect in November 2017, CHC’s Australian operation is replacing existing Sikorsky S-76A+ SAR helicopters with six Leonardo AW139s, the first of which is already in service providing SAR coverage at RAAF Base East Sale. The other AW139s will progressively enter service through 2018 at RAAF Bases Pearce, Tindal, Williamtown, and Amberley.
“We’ve provided services to the RAAF for over 30 years, and in the past couple of years we also have [won] a separate contract with the Army, and a separate contract with the Navy,” Karl Fessenden, president and CEO of the Dallas-headquartered CHC Group, told Australian Aviation in an interview last week.
The contract extension means longer term all three existing ADF aviation SAR contracts can be replaced with a new single tender, Fessenden explained.
“The plan is for the Australian Defence Force to come together, combine all of that into one common contract, as our contract extension ends, and that will be for probably five or 10 years, so a very large opportunity,” he said during a visit to Canberra.
“So in this extension, we brought in new technology. We had S-76A pluses which are some older aircraft. They have provided many years of good service, but it was time really to demonstrate to the Army, the Navy and the Air Force that there was better technology. So faster, better capabilities, more distances [with] bringing in the AW139s.”
The AW139s feature four-axis auto-hover, allowing them to hover over water at night. Further, CHC crews will also use white phosphorous night vision technology, which offers far greater range and visual acuity over traditional night vision goggles.
“The contrast is better, and this allows you in a search and rescue situation to see more, and have a higher probability of finding someone. So if somebody’s lost and they just put up a phone with just the screen, it would look almost like a spotlight to these night vision goggles,” Fessenden said.
Three of the AW139s to be used for the RAAF contract were already in-country in CHC’s Australian fleet, while the other three machines had previously seen service with a CHC SAR contract in the UK, Fessenden said.
“So a total of six will be going into this, and we’re hoping that this will well position us for the future, larger tender, as we’ll have the incumbency.”
The existing S-76s, Fessenden said, “were really starting to see kind of their end of efficient life, and we’re one of the largest operators of the AW139 in the commercial world.
“We have over 45 of these 139s [worldwide], and so we knew the capabilities of the 139, and as part of our extension, we basically said ‘let us demonstrate the future technology that you should have in the longer term contract, and really provide a much more capable service now, and CHC will bring that in as part of this extension’, which obviously appealed to them.”
The helicopters are tasked to provide search and rescue and aeromedical retrieval of RAAF aircrew in the event of aircraft accidents and ejections.