T&T copters still grounded five months after arriving at Piarco

(Trinidad Express) Although they landed in the country five months ago, the two Augusta Westland (AW) 139 helicopters, one half of a TT$2 billion order that will include two other AW 139 choppers scheduled to be in Trinidad and Tobago next year, are still grounded.

Officials are now scrambling to meet Trinidad and Tobago Civil Aviation Authority (T&TCAA) requirements that should have been in place before the helicopters touched down in the country.

Although the two aircraft received a special dispensation to perform fly-by duties during the military parade on Independence Day, the Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard (T&TAG) aircraft have not seen action since.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Minister of National Security Brigadier John Sandy commissioned the new helicopters at the Air Guard, Piarco Air Station, North Bank Road, Piarco on June 9.

Five months later, Defence Force public relations officer Captain Al Alexander is saying: “Work is proceeding at a feverish pace to get things in place.”

But an aviation source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to make statements, said that the lack of proper facilities to store the billion-dollar investment was a breach of the provisions of the contract.

The source said as part of the agreement, the T&TAG is supposed to train and qualify T&TAG personnel; have facilities like an air-conditioned hangar to store the heat-sensitive multi-million dollar state-of-the-art technological equipment on board the helicopters; have the appropriate equipment to perform maintenance; develop procedural manuals including flight manuals and aircraft specific maintenance manuals; and possess the appropriate tools and test equipment recommended by the manufacturer.

“The T&TAG officials have not attained qualification to be part of operational procedures of the aircraft,” the source, who is familiar with the Air Guard said.

Asked last week if the T&TAG had an air-conditioned hangar in place before the helicopters’ arrival, Capt Alexander said: “No, I guess there isn’t one.”

The former PNM government purchased the AW 139 choppers to work in tandem with the three Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), a deal the current government cancelled last year.

They were to form part of the government’s crime-fighting and surveillance operations including assistance in border control and the detection of drug trafficking in and around the country’s coastal space.

The source added that the lack of the OPVs had also seriously limited the capability of the choppers which can only operate for short periods before needing to refuel.

The aviation expert said the (T&TCAA) is responsible for the security of civilian airspace and that any military aircraft operating in civil airspace must “meet or surpass civilian standards”.

He accused the government, as owner of the Air Guard’s fleet and which is responsible for ensuring that the aircraft have valid certificates of airworthiness, of being “negligent”.

Calls to T&TCAA officials were not returned while attempts to contact T&TAG commanding officer Tyrone Rodolfo proved futile.

Several calls to the Prime Minister’s security adviser Captain Gary Griffith’s cell phone went directly to voicemail.

Leader of Government Business Roodal Moonilal could not be reached for comment either.


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