Search and Rescue: A Changing Market

Private operators are now performing search and rescue (SAR) missions for oil companies—an assignment that was once reserved for the military. The upshot is a growing market for specialized aircraft.

 Alain Ernoult /
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Until now, the private sector has had no role to play in search and rescue activities: Depending on the country, SAR work is usually entrusted to the air force, the navy, the interior ministry or even the transport ministry.
In the last few years, however, private operators have begun performing these public service missions. This change is closely linked to very specific developments in the oil & gas industry: Companies have begun drilling further and further from the shore in areas that are no longer covered by national emergency services. Private companies have therefore stepped in to take over from or at the least provide support to military and public safety organizations.
The JIGSAW contract (see article, page 22) is a very good case in point: Two AS332 L2 Super Pumas based in the Shetland Islands provide permanent SAR services to oil companies in the North Sea. This type of arrangement makes very good sense from a financial point of view, and will undoubtedly be emulated. It also offers operators flexibility: They can either choose to allocate a helicopter to SAR missions full-time or choose optional equipment that allows them to quickly reconfigure a helicopter as needed for transport or rescue duties.
In both cases, a private operator can also make a return on a SAR helicopter by leasing its services to governments when required. From an operational point of view, governments have nothing to fear: Major operators, especially in the oil & gas sector, have proven their capabilities in terms of organization and training for many years now.
This type of arrangement does require a high level of cooperation between the operator and the government however, and in reality, few countries are ready to implement such an innovative approach.
The United Kingdom is, once again, the exception to the rule.
As the UK SAR program clearly demonstrates, the Ministry of Defence is determined to outsource SAR missions to private operators. Various operators are competing for this five-year contract, which calls for a dozen or so helicopters.
This future contract alone accounts for an important slice of the SAR market, which is now estimated at approximately ten specialist aircraft a year. Only two or three sales a year were made in this sector a decade ago, but aging military fleets and the growing demand from oil & gas companies explain this rapid expansion.

Oil companies, governments and operators are looking for multipurpose aircraft that can perform an extremely wide range of missions. Eurocopter is in a very strong position to meet demand with a comprehensive range of aircraft that can meet many different needs in terms of endurance and payload.


Nine out of ten SAR missions at sea are flown within 50 nautical miles of the coast. Only 3% of missions require a helicopter that can fly more than 200 nautical miles.

Two AS332 L2 Super Pumas based in the Shetland Islands provide permanent SAR services to oil companies in the North Sea.