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(Reuters) - Britain's search and rescue helicopter services, whose pilots include Prince William, will be sold to United States-based Bristow Group in a 1.6 billion pound deal that ends 70 years of military involvement in saving lives at sea and on land.
The Department for Transport on Tuesday said that handing the contract to Bristow, which already provides some services, would cut response times by four minutes to an average 19 minutes and increase the high-risk areas reachable within 30 minutes.
"With 24 years of experience providing search and rescue helicopter services in the UK, the public can have great confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first-class service with state-of-the-art helicopters," said Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
Under the new contract, 22 helicopters, comprising 10 Sikorsky S92s and 10 AgustaWestland AW189s, will operate from 10 locations around Britain when the new service is fully operational in 2017.
The Royal Air Force And Royal Navy Sea King helicopters had been in operation for nearly 40 years, the government said, and the time had come for a change in aircraft.
Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that existing military aircrew, including Queen Elizabeth's grandson Prince William, who is second in line to the throne, are likely to be redeployed elsewhere.
Prince William, who became a fully operational Sea King helicopter pilot in 2010 and currently works at a base in north Wales, was due to end his search-and-rescue tour in 2013.
"If his tour is extended by a further three years he may be affected, but like all other military personnel he would be redeployed at the discretion of the RAF," an MoD spokesman said. ($1 = 0.6586 British pounds)
Reporting by Paul Sandle in London and Ankur Banerjee in Bangalore; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and David Goodman