Ready for take-off: Coast Guard helicopter completed

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US AIRCRAFT company Sikorsky has built the Irish Coast Guard’s new S-92 helicopter which will be leased for search and rescue off the Atlantic seaboard next year.

Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds attended the handover ceremony in Pennsylvania in the US earlier this week, and the aircraft is due to be shipped across the Atlantic early next month.

It will then be assembled in Britain and flown to Ireland from Southampton.

The new helicopter will be based at Shannon, as part of a €500 million helicopter fleet replacement programme which also involves introducing four second-hand S-92s currently based in Scotland.

All five aircraft will be leased by Irish Coast Guard search- and-rescue contract holder CHC Helicopters from CHC Global Leasing, based in Dublin, under a 10-year contract costing €50 million annually.

The S-92 aircraft will replace the existing Sikorsky S-61s, and will represent a “stepped improvement in Ireland’s ability to care for and service its seagoing, coastal and island communities”, Mr Reynolds has said.

Built to specifics drawn up by the Irish Coast Guard, the new S-92 is equipped with advanced systems and hardware, including an automated flight control system that enables the pilot to fly programmed search patterns and “perform delicate hover manoeuvres”, according to the manufacturer.

A wireless intercom allows a rescue swimmer to communicate with the helicopter crew. it also has weather radar, infrared sensor, a dual rescue hoist and improved rescue searchlight.

Training with crews at Shannon will begin in February, and its first public demonstration is expected to be at the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s departure from Cobh in Cork next spring.

The €500 million fleet replacement programme, signed by former minister for transport Noel Dempsey, had proved controversial on several counts. Fine Gael in opposition had pledged a review if it was elected to government.

Fine Gael’s former transport spokesman, and now Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd, had expressed concern about the cost of the contract and about developments in Britain, where the government encountered difficulties in the bidding contest to privatise its search and rescue.

CHC Helicopters had been part of the Soteria consortium seeking the 10-year British tender. However, when it admitted it had access to commercially sensitive information, the contest was cancelled and an investigation by British military police was initiated.

Documentation obtained by Mr O’Dowd has also shown the Department of Defence ruled the Air Corps out as a contender for any new Irish search-and- rescue work back in July 2008, on the basis that its AW139 helicopters were not equipped for search and rescue and it had “no aspirations” towards a national role in this area.

The Air Corps was withdrawn from search and rescue by former minister for defence Michael Smith in 2004.

A newly advertised British contract involves providing four coastguard rescue services in Scotland and southern England over five years.

It is intended to fill a gap until a private finance deal is reached for the takeover of the entire search and rescue service around the UK.

CHC is one of the bidders. The outcome is expected to influence transfer of the company’s second-hand S-92s from Scotland to Ireland’s other three search-and-rescue helicopter bases in Dublin, Sligo and Waterford.The target delivery date for those is 2013.

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