{'Gift from Hell'} {Helicopter Plans under Fire from Industry Experts}; Industry Sources Say Chopper Not Good Enough

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Hoffman

THE Eurocopter 135 twin-engined helicopter the state government has committed to Surf Life Saving Queensland has been described by industry sources as a "gift from hell" which will cost a fortune to operate, require continual maintenance and won't adequately do the job for which it is intended.

The criticism comes as the state government also was accused of bungling the $50 million purchase of three Augusta Westland 139 helicopters that the LNP says are not up to the job.

Just a year into service one of those helicopters has spent the past three months in pieces in a repair hangar after its first scheduled inspection.

When flying, it is estimated that each of the three helicopters would run up an annual bill of $7 million for direct operating costs alone.

LNP emergency services spokesman Ted Malone said pilots and crews report the new aircraft to be totally unsuitable for rescue work.

The EC135 helicopter that premier Anna Bligh announced with much fanfare would be given to SLSQ already needs a $200,000 service before it can be put into use.

Industry sources say that figure could be considerably higher, describing the gifting of the aircraft as a political stunt.

And the emergency services department appears ill-informed about the EC135's fuel consumption, putting it at 135 litres an hour, which is the figure for just one of its two Pratt and Whitney 700hp engines.

The real consumption is almost double that an hour.

The helicopter, which was purchased in September, 2003 for $7.5 million, has spent the past year in a hangar at Archerfield. By the government's own estimates it has incurred $300,000 in maintenance costs to date.

On those figures, the aircraft's maintenance bill, including the service it is due, runs to $310 for every hour of flight.

However, as it is now out of warranty, the operating costs are expected to skyrocket.

The aircraft flew for only 1610 hours in just over four years with an average air time of a little over one hour a day.

Experienced helicopter pilots say it is a way over the top and high cost option for its primary new role of beach patrols.

Department of emergency services director-general Jim McGowan said the aircraft was due a number of routine maintenance requirements as part of its scheduled 800-hourly inspection, the $200,000 estimated cost of which emergency services minister Neil Roberts said would be funded by his department before hand over.

"SLSQ was concerned that its helicopter was unlikely to achieve Civil Aviation Safety Authority accreditation in the future," Mr Roberts said.

"The EC135 would meet CASA and SLSQ requirements.

"The EC135 is a better rescue helicopter than SLSQ's single engine, single pilot helicopter.

The EC135 is relatively new, being only five years old, is a two-pilot operation, has twin engines and is already configured for search and rescue operations with winching capability."

The contention is challenged by aviation sources who said SLSQ's existing machine was a perfectly serviceable helicopter which has just been fitted with the new Honeywell LTS101 engine and has had many upgrades completed at great expense.

Mr Roberts confirmed that crew members on existing SLSQ aircraft would be trained as commercial pilots for the new aircraft at a cost of $60,000 each.

There are 16 emergency services rescue helicopter crewmen split between bases at Townsville, Cairns and Brisbane.

Sources say they would also need night/co-pilot instrument ratings, B412 and AW139 endorsements.

Crew would need to be brought from Cairns and Townsville to Brisbane and be accommodated during training.

Mr Roberts defended the expense, which won't see most of the crew members achieve accreditation before they are in their mid 50s, saying it "provides a career path and enhances EMQ's status as an employer of choice". …