For discussion
on 28 November 1997


Subhead 603 Plant, vehicles and equipment

Members are invited to approve a new commitment of $728.5 million for procuring three large and five small helicopters to replace the existing helicopter fleet of the Government Flying Service.


We need to upgrade the existing helicopter fleet of the Government Flying Service (GFS) to improve our flying services, particularly for search and rescue operations.


2.The Controller, GFS, with the support of the Secretary for Security, proposes to replace the existing six Sikorsky S76 helicopters and three Sikorsky S70 Blackhawks by five small and three large helicopters to enhance GFS's capability, efficiency and operational flexibility and improve its services.


Limitation of the existing helicopter fleet

3.GFS provides services of medical evacuation, search and rescue, police support, fire fighting as well as other flying services for various government departments. It currently has a helicopter fleet comprising six Sikorsky S76 for off-shore search and rescue and general duties, and three Sikorsky S70 Blackhawks mainly for police support and limited inland search and rescue operations. The Controller, GFS has reviewed the service provided by the existing helicopter fleet against present and anticipated demands. He has concluded that we need to improve the service by -

  1. doubling the present area of coverage for search and rescue operations off-shore in the South China Sea;

  2. increasing the number of survivors that could be rescued per trip in an operation;

  3. shortening the transfer time for casualty evacuation of patients; and

  4. providing modern equipment to support search and rescue and police operations at night and in poor visibility.

As explained in the following paragraphs, the capability of the present helicopter fleet is limited and cannot meet these service improvements.

Limited capability for long-range search and rescue

4.At present, GFS carries out off-shore search and rescue by the S76. The operating range of the S76 is limited to only 100 nautical miles (nm) maximum in still wind and the average on-scene time is 15 minutes. The limited operating capability of these helicopters has, in some cases, resulted in GFS being able to carry out a rescue operation at sea only when the vessel requiring help comes within the 100 nm range. On other occasions when GFS has to perform rescue operations beyond the S76's distance and endurance limit, we would need to refuel the helicopters on oil rigs or alternatively use fixed wing aircraft. On average, this happens about 20 times a year and is unsatisfactory. Refuelling at oil rigs adds to the mission time and may require a diversion. Fixed wing aircraft have a longer operating range, but they have major limitations in rescue operations. For example, unlike helicopters, they cannot easily and safely extract survivors from the scene. Fixed wing aircraft are also less expedient in transferring survivors to hospitals for medical treatment.

5.The larger S70 Blackhawks are not suitable for operations beyond 25 nm off-shore as they lack equipment that would keep the helicopter afloat in the event of an emergency water landing. S70 Blackhawks are therefore limited to inland search and rescue operations.

Limited number of survivors to be rescued

6.The limited on-scene time of 15 minutes of the S76 means that we can pick up only one survivor per trip in an off-shore operation. Furthermore, the cabin of the S76 is small with limited room for the transfer of survivors. By comparison, the S70 Blackhawks can remain on the scene for one hour and can pick up eight survivors per trip. However, as explained in paragraph 5 above, they are not suitable for off-shore operations and can only be used for inland search and rescue.

Long transfer time of casualties

7.Civil aviation regulations enacted in 1995 require that in the case of a single engine failure on take-off or landing, the aircraft should have the performance to execute a safe landing to a landing point or have the ability to fly away safely on the remaining good engine. The present S76 helicopters have limited engine power and do not comply with the above requirement to allow safe operations onto roof tops and landing sites in congested areas. For this reason, we cannot transfer casualties to the hospitals direct in most cases and have to transfer them to the GFS Headquarters at Kowloon Bay first and then by road transport to the hospital. This lengthens the time required to transfer casualties to hospitals in rescue missions. In 1996, GFS carried out 1 461 cases of casualty evacuation transfer.

8.Although the S70 Blackhawks have the power margins to meet the above civil aviation requirements, they are not suitable for off-shore long-range operations as explained above. In addition, they are equipped with a very limited automatic pilot system with no search and rescue functions. They cannot therefore operate in many search and rescue cases and are particularly unsuited for search and rescue in bad weather and at night for safety reasons.

The need for a new helicopter fleet

Search and rescue capability

9.To improve the present search and rescue service, GFS needs helicopters with an operating range of 200 nm in all directions, with on-scene time of one hour for searching and safe recovery of survivors, especially during serious incidents in adverse weather conditions, and with higher power margins for safe operations on rooftop and landing sites. This will enable GFS to double the present area of coverage for search and rescue in the South China Sea, to rescue more survivors per trip in each operation and to shorten the time of casualty evacuation transfers.

10.In addition, the Controller, GFS considers it necessary to further improve the search and rescue service by equipping the helicopters with Forward Looking Infra-red Radar (FLIR) system and Night Vision Goggle for operations at night and in poor visibility to allow for the fleet to have an all weather day/night capability.

Support to Police operations

11.Apart from search and rescue service, we would need to improve GFS's support to Police operations in the following areas -

  1. providing through modern surveillance equipment more effective night surveillance over Hong Kong waters in support of the anti-smuggling operations;

  2. enabling transmission of real time FLIR imagery to the emergency command and control centres; and

  3. meeting all civil aviation requirements and reducing aircraft noise during general Police duties.

The new helicopters

12.With rapid technological advancement in aviation, new helicopter models which fully meet the requirements as described in paragraph 7 are available in the market since 1996. We consider it timely and necessary to upgrade our helicopter fleet. We therefore propose to purchase three large helicopters which are capable of carrying out the dual roles of long-range off-shore search and rescue and providing efficient support to police operations. We shall then require only five small helicopters with greater power margins for general duties and inland search and rescue.

13.The helicopters purchased will be purpose built and fitted with modern equipment. The replacement helicopters will have better and safer performance to engage in all weather day/night search and rescue operations over land and water. At the operating range of 100 nm, the three new large helicopters can remain on the scene for three hours and pick up 24 survivors per trip. They will have a maximum operating range of 200 nm at which the on-scene time is one hour and ten survivors can be picked up per trip. As regards the five new small helicopters, they will have a maximum operating range of 100 nm and half an hour on-scene time. Two survivors can be picked up per trip. These performance standards represent considerable improvements over what GFS is capable of providing with the present fleet.

14.The new helicopters will meet all civil aviation regulations. This makes it possible for the GFS to carry out rooftop operations and utilise all landing sites and rooftop helipads. Hence, GFS will be able to transport casualties directly to the hospitals with landing sites and rooftop helipads, thereby ensuring speedy treatment of casualties.

Modification of existing helicopters

15.We have considered the option of reducing the number of new helicopters to be procured by upgrading some of the existing ones. Four of the S76 (the S76A+ model) are of a built standard that simply cannot be upgraded. Technically speaking, we could upgrade the remaining two S76 (the S76C model) to increase their power margins. However, this will not be a cost-effective and desirable alternative. The average time to complete the upgrading works will be four to six months per aircraft (or 2 100 man-hours per aircraft) at a minimum cost of $11 million per helicopter. More importantly, assuming that we replace the four existing S76 and upgrade the other two, we would end up with a S76 fleet with two types of helicopters each with their own spare parts, operating procedures and performance capabilities. This is highly undesirable in terms of flight safety. From a training point of view, the Director of Civil Aviation has advised that it would be unwise for the crews of GFS to operate more than two types of aircraft simultaneously.

16.As regards the three S70 Blackhawks, we could, as an alternative to replacement, equip them with a limited flotation device to enhance their suitability for long-range off-shore search and rescue. The cost is about $27.3 million per airframe but the device may not meet fully the operational requirements. Modification to these helicopters to include automatic pilot system with search and rescue functions is technically not feasible.

Partial replacement of existing fleet

17.We have also considered partial replacement of the present helicopter fleet but concluded that this is undesirable because the tasks undertaken by the two new types of helicopters are different. The large replacement helicopter will specialise in long-range search and rescue and Police support, while the small replacement helicopter is for general purposes and inland search and rescue. Replacing only the S76 with new small helicopters will not enhance our off-shore search and rescue capability as the new small ones and the S70 Blackhawks are not equipped for this purpose. Replacing the S70 Blackhawks alone with new big helicopters would mean that we still have to rely on the S76 with power margins falling short of the civil aviation requirements to carry out many duties.


18.The Controller, GFS estimates that the total non-recurrent expenditure of the proposal is $728.5 million, made up as follows -

Item$ ' 000
(a) Three replacement helicopters for the three S70 Blackhawks

(b) Five replacement helicopters for the six S76

(c) Spares and support parts

(d) Evaluation and support

(e) Pilot and engineering training


The expenditure would spread over a period of four years in line with the delivery schedule and terms of payment. The estimated cashflow will be as follows -

$ ' 000

19.As regards paragraph 18(a) and (b), these cover the cost of basic design, manufacture and delivery costs of the eight purpose-built replacement helicopters. The estimates are based on a market study conducted by GFS earlier this year.

20.As regards paragraph 18(c), this covers the cost of spare and support parts for three years to provide a stock/spare base and the delivery cost.

21.As regards paragraph 18(d), this covers the cost of overseas visits for evaluating the helicopter models and the cost of providing a manufacturer's technical representative and an instructor pilot by the manufacturer to Hong Kong for essential initial assistance to GFS.

22.As regards paragraph 18(e), this covers essential tailor-made training for pilots and maintenance staff provided by the manufacturer.

23.With the eight replacement helicopters, GFS will continue to provide 24-hour coverage and the same amount, if not more, of flying hours as at present. Since the staffing level and spare parts and maintenance cost of the helicopters required are closely related to their utilisation, the Controller, GFS estimates that the annual recurrent expenditure for the replacement helicopters will be the same as the current fleet, which is $88.8 million.

24.We shall sell the nine existing helicopters and the associated spares when the eight replacement helicopters are in service. While the resale price will depend very much on the condition of the helicopters at the time of sale and on whether there would be competitive demand for that type of helicopter, we expect that we would be able to recover about $360 million from the resale of the existing fleet.

Implementation Plan

25.The Controller, GFS plans to purchase the helicopters through a world-wide public tender exercise. We shall form a Helicopter Replacement Evaluation Team and conduct overseas visits to examine and select suitable helicopters models. The following is the programme schedule -

Three new large helicoptersFive new small helicopters
(a)Preparation of tender specifications

November 1997November 1997
(b)Preparation and issue of tender documents

March 1998
March 1998
(c)Evaluation of tender proposal

May 1998 August 1998
(d)Negotiation with tenderer

July 1998 October 1998
(e)Submission to Central Tender Board and award of contract

August 1998 November 1998
(f)Delivery of helicopter

February to
October 2000
April 2000 to
July 2001


26.At the Finance Committee meetings held on 9 December 1987 and 25 January 1989, Members approved the purchase of three and five S76 helicopters respectively. These eight S76 entered service in 1990 and 1991. The Finance Committee further approved the purchase of two S70 Blackhawks in March 1992 and one S70 Blackhawk offset by selling two S76 helicopters in December 1994. These S70 Blackhawks commenced operation in 1992 and 1995 respectively. The GFS now operates a fleet of nine helicopters.

Security Bureau
November 1997