WASHINGTON, March 4 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force decided on Tuesday to start work on a new rescue helicopter by United Technologies Corp's Sikorsky Aircraft in fiscal 2015, a surprising turnaround hours after the Pentagon told Congress the program had been postponed.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James made the abrupt decision on the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program shortly before officials began briefing reporters about the Air Force's budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Influential lawmakers had pressed for the change, which was the latest twist in a nearly decade-long quest by the Air Force to replace its aging fleet of Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.
"Moving forward with the CRH contract award protects a good competitive price and effectively uses the $334 million Congress appropriated for the program," James said in a statement.
"Over the last 10 years, the Air Force has discussed upgrading the platform that performs this sacred mission for all DoD personnel who go into harm's way," said James, referring to the Department of Defense. "This mission is part of the military ethos, and the Air Force is committed to providing it."
Analysts say the program to build 112 new helicopters is valued at around $6.8 billion. In 2006, Boeing Co's H-47 Chinook helicopter was chosen, but the Pentagon canceled the $15 billion contract in 2009 after multiple protests by the losing bidders.
The Air Force was poised last year to award the contract to Sikorsky, the sole bidder, but delayed the decision while independent cost estimators reviewed the bid.
The Air Force said it would take $430 million from other priorities to fund the program, and hoped to award a contract to Sikorsky by the end of June.
"Sikorsky and our teammate Lockheed Martin thank the U.S. Air Force for enabling us to build a modern and affordable combat rescue helicopter," said Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens.
Other potential bidders have dropped out, complaining the rules favored Sikorsky's Black Hawk helicopter.
The Air Force said the award would come after a review by senior Pentagon officials and an independent cost estimate.
Senators Charles Schumer, who heads the Senate rules committee, and Dick Durbin, who heads the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, called James on Tuesday after they learned that the budget did not include funding for the rescue helicopter, said a source familiar with the matter who is not authorized to speak publicly about it.
"There's a lot of support for this program," the source said.
Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, applauded the decision and said she had spoken to James on Tuesday afternoon about the 112 helicopter contract.
"The combat rescue helicopters are critical life-saving assets that the Air Force has needed for years to replace its current fleet of worn-down aircraft," she said in a statement.
DeLauro was one of 74 lawmakers in the House of Representatives to sign a letter in December urging support for the rescue helicopter program.
James said the program could still face challenges in Congress and would have to be reevaluated if mandatory budget cuts resumed in fiscal 2016.