Change in government sees Trinidad and Tobago’s highly respected Air Guard AW139 helicopter fleet grounded until a solution can be found for maintenance payment deemed “too expensive.”
In a hangar on the outskirts of Piarco International Airport, four Leonardo AW139 helicopters painted in subdued grey camouflage belonging to the Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard (TTAG) sit idle for the first time since the inception of an ambitious national security program that would see the combining of the oil rich nation’s military aviation assets into a new military unit that would provide helicopter based operations supporting a multitude of missions that included law enforcement, anti terrorism, disaster relief, aerial fire fighting, national defense duties, and air ambulance evacuations.
The Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard selected the AgustaWestland (now Leonardo Helicopters) AW139 in 2009 as the helicopter that would carry out their mission. The contract award also including the training of military officers with no prior aviation experience to become pilots in command of the AW139. The entire contract with AgustaWestland at the time stated as being valued at over $348 Million USD.
The contract further included the training and certification of TTAG’s maintenance personnel and rescue crewmen. Also covered in the contract was the operational management, maintenance costs and ongoing training for TTAG to eventually become a stand alone operation, which is yet to happen, although originally projected to have become a self sufficient operation by this time. The AOC for the TTAG operation, along with the training needs of the agency was transferred to English company Cobham, who has now become the key focus of the Trinidadian government as it relates to the ongoing costs of the program.. The latest payment due of $200 million TT (approximately $28.75 million USD) has been stalled by the Peoples National Movement Party government that took power from the previous political party, the Peoples Partnership Coalition who were instrumental in the creation and ongoing support for the much needed helicopter based national security operation. The fleet of four helicopters operated by the award winning Air Guard was grounded as of July 3rd with the new government still to discuss the future of TTAG’s helicopters at the Cabinet level to decide if the ongoing cost projections are a worthwhile investment.
“The government just could not afford that payment at this time, given the current economic climate. Today we took a decision at the level of the Cabinet that we are not in a position to pay $200 million to maintain our four Augusta helicopters for one year. We just can’t afford that and if we can’t afford it the helicopters will stay on the ground,” said Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley in a statement released to the media regarding the grounding of the nations only national defense assets.
Despite the current government riding into office with the promise of more security for the residents of Trinidad and Tobago, crime rates have remained high since the new government won a closely contested election, winning the nations vote in 2015 by five cabinet seats and only a 5.06% vote swing. The latest move by the Trinidad cabinet, one seen by many commenting on social media sites to be a move in the wrong direction and one that will do more to add to the already high crime statistics in the country.
Dr. Rowley when questioned about the lack of air support if needed, stated that there were still other helicopters in the country that can be used.
“We are not without helicopters. The National Helicopter Service is there and we must ask why is the National Helicopter Service not playing a role? But we cannot continue paying 200 million for a foreign company to maintain the helicopters for 12 months. Clearly, at a time when we don’t have the money, we have to look at other alternatives,” he said. The Prime Minister also refused to rule out selling the four helicopters.
National Helicopters, the company mentioned by the Prime Minister, is a for profit entity of the Trinidad Government that commenced operations in 1990 to provide services to the oil and gas market. The company has gone on to providing limited police level response after a bid to purchase four Bell 429’s and a Bell 412 EPi for search and rescue operations by the National Operations Centre, Air Division (NOCAD) failed to proceed. The company has recently, although not announced publicly, taken delivery of an Airbus H135 and Leonardo AW139 that is reportedly already painted in an NPS paint scheme according to postings seen on social media from members of the public.
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