Tuesday 14 July 2009

Chinook helicopters

What's the first thing you do when you buy a new car? Maybe you're an organised owner and sit down with the handbook/s and diligently read all the information therein. Perhaps you take it for a long drive, testing its capacity for speed, braking efficiency, safety, fuel consumption, noise, comfort, desirability in the eyes of other motorists. Do you look under the bonnet and calculate whether you can carry out all necessary servicing? Conceivably you give it a thorough valeting to validate your ownership. Would you consider removing the engine and replacing it with another from a different make and model? That seems unlikely as you would then have many other puzzles to solve.

However, that is precisely what the Ministry of Defence did in 1995 when ordering eight Special Operation Mk3 Chinook helicopters from US manufacturer Boeing. The MoD specified engines which would be built in UK, presumably to provide employment in a Member of Parliament's constituency. Access to security codes to test airworthiness was not included in the contract to which UK officials agreed.

In 2001, six years later, when the Chinooks were delivered they did not meet airworthiness standards, being considered safe only to fly not more than 500 feet from the ground in good visibility. They were then put into storage hangars.

A year later, in 2002, less complex Mk2 Chinooks were equipped for night flying but the infra-red computer screens had to be upgraded as the original screens partially obscured vision, making them less safe to fly. The upgrade cost £32.3 million.

Two years after this, in 2004, the MoD declared that in order to make the 'new' helicopters airworthy by 2008 it would spend £215 million on a high-level upgrade. Organising the contract took far longer than expected and it was soon abundantly clear that the Chinooks would not be ready to fly until 2011.

In 2007 the upgrade was cancelled because the MoD said it would take too long. That decision cost £17.25 million for the work already completed. The MoD decided on a cheaper option with a new night vision system. This was estimated at a cost of £53 million. This has since risen to £112 million with an unknown sum for night vision equipment.

The MoD confidently stated that it would have one of the eight Chinooks operational by 2009 with the other seven ready by 2010. It is now the seventh month of 2009 and no 'new' Chinooks are yet in service.

The RAF's 48 Chinooks are ageing; some are in poor condition and are being used to provide spare parts to keep others in the air in Afghanistan. There are currently ten deployed in Afghanistan(February 2009)

When or perhaps if the eight Mk3 Chinooks, now all 'reverted' to Mk2/2a to make them available more quickly, finally take to the air the whole procurement fiasco will have cost more than £422 million. In all probability it will cost more than £500 million. It seems that they may not now see service in Afghanistan but will be used in training aircrew.

In the meantime, in-service RAF Chinooks will fly more hours, new rotor blades have been fitted to Sea King helicopters and six Danish Air Force Merlins have been bought and are being converted.

And still the Government insists that the Military are better equipped than they have ever been –they don't seem to realise that's not at all the same as saying they are 'best equipped' which is what all the friends and relations of serving personnel desperately want to hear.

Today eight more bodies were repatriated to the UK. There was, as usual, no coverage of casualties in the media. They will be supported by charity.

Information gathered from David Hencke's article of 4th June 2008 in The Guardian; BBC News diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams, 4th June 2008; Sky News defence correspondent Geoff Meade, 24th February 2009; Wikipedia

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