Dáil Éireann - Volume 533 - 28 March, 2001

Priority Questions. - Helicopter Service.

21. Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Defence if, in regard to his announcement of 25 March 2000 that a Squirrel helicopter would be acquired to facilitate training of pilots for the Garda helicopter wing, he will outline the progress which has [849] been made in this regard; if tenders were sought; if so, when; the number of tenders received; when the promised helicopter will be acquired, and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9111/01]

Mr. M. Smith: On 11 May 1999 during an operation in the Clare-Galway region, the Garda air support unit helicopter, which is piloted by Air Corps personnel, inadvertently entered cloud. Contact was lost with the ground target, the mission was aborted and the helicopter proceeded to Shannon Airport.

The incident was the subject of an investigation carried out by the air accident investigation unit of the Department of Public Enterprise. A report was subsequently published which included a number of recommendations, one of which was that the Air Corps should suspend Garda air support unit night operations in rural areas with immediate effect until an effective programme of extra night flying is completed by Air Corps Garda air support unit pilots. This recommendation was implemented.

In order to facilitate an effective programme of training which would not impinge on the ongoing operation, I announced in February 2000 that a Squirrel helicopter was to be acquired for the Air Corps as soon as possible for the purpose of pilot training in connection with the operation of the Garda air support unit. Work began in the Department on the preparation of the tender documentation and on 22 May 2000 a request for tender for the supply of one used Squirrel AS 355F2 helicopter to the Department of Defence issued.

The AS 355F2 helicopter was manufactured by Eurocopter in France between 1988 and 1995. As the Department ideally required a helicopter which would be backed up by the manufacturer from the point of view of warranties, maintenance and support, the tender documentation issued only to Eurocopter through its Irish agent, Atron based in Sandyford, Dublin 18. However, Eurocopter was not able to offer a suitable AS 355F2 helicopter which it could guarantee and support. Discussions took place with the military authorities and the Air Corps and it was decided to attempt to acquire on the open market a used AS 355N helicopter, a later model of the F2 also manufactured by Eurocopter. The tender documentation was prepared and on 27 September 2000 a request for tender for the supply of one used AS 355N helicopter to the Department of Defence issued to a total of 15 companies. The closing date for receipt of tenders was 12 October 2000.

The result of the tender competition indicated that there were very few AS 355N helicopters available on the open market. Six responses were received, some of which offered different helicopter types which could not be considered. Essentially, the valid tenders from three companies related to the same one only, AS 355N helicopter, which was available in the Philippines. Having considered the responses and the various factors [850] involved, the option to look further into the possible purchase of this particular helicopter was not taken up by the Department.

All options for the provision of the night flying training of Air Corps pilots for the Garda air support unit are under active consideration in my Department but the prospect of obtaining a second hand Squirrel helicopter for this work are not good given our experience in the tender competitions and the buoyancy of the market for such helicopters.

Additional InformationThe new Garda air support unit helicopter, the EC 135, is due to be operational in May-June of this year. In that context, and with two helicopters available, the option of using one of the two Garda air support unit helicopters for training purposes, including night flying training, will be discussed between officials from my Department and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am hopeful of a positive outcome to these discussions which would resolve the issue once and for all and would allow for the Garda air support unit helicopters to be available for night flying operations in rural areas.

Mr. Wall: I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. It is disappointing that members of the Air Corps will not be in a position to obtain the basic training necessary because of the non-provision of the helicopter. What is the position in relation to the possible lease of a helicopter, given that inquiries have been exhausted without success? Is there a possibility of leasing this type of helicopter from countries within the EU or America so that the necessary training can be provided given that the Minister stated in his reply that this is under active investigation? Could such training be sought in another country for Air Corps personnel so that the disappointment expressed to me in this regard can be alleviated and Air Corps personnel can get on with its work?

Mr. M. Smith: We all share the disappointment at the set back which Deputy Wall has expressed. Despite the most exhaustive attempts to obtain a new Squirrel helicopter, we were unable to do so in a satisfactory manner. The new Garda air support unit helicopter, the EC 135, is due to be operational in May-June this year. We are now entering negotiations with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform with a view to the possible use of what will then be two helicopters for night training purposes. If we can resolve that aspect to our satisfaction, it will eliminate the problems outlined by the Deputy. However, we must first conclude the negotiations.

Mr. Wall: If the active negotiations taking place with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are not satisfactory will the Minister give a commitment to the House that he will consider other options in relation to the possible lease of [851] the helicopter or the possibility of training Air Corps personnel in a different country?

Mr. Smith: I am approaching the negotiations with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform with the greatest optimism. Should the negotiations conclude unsatisfactorily from our point of view, I will be happy to consider other options.