Status on Pricey Taxpayer-Funded AW-139 Helis Uncertain
Updated: Friday, August 2 2013, 10:11 PM EDT
On Monday night there was still no word if the state’s pricey new AW-139 medevac and enforcement helicopters are flying missions. Earlier this month state police told FOX45 the choppers - which cost taxpayers upwards of $130 million - would be flying out of the state’s Frederick barrack by now.
The state police declined to comment on if the planned roll-out is still on schedule, leaving critics to speculate if the burden of training and operating the more complex AW-139s may be overwhelming an agency that is already short-staffed.
A decision to purchase 12 of the larger, more technologically advanced helicopters was controversial when it was made in 2008 - and remains so today. The requisition forced the state to borrow $133 million instead of choosing cheaper alternatives such as privatizing the fleet or refurbishing existing helicopters.
A letter obtained by FOX45 revealed a behind-the-scenes battle between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Maryland State Police. In it, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger asks the FAA to back down from their decision to require two pilots in the cockpit of the AW-139s. The letter highlights three occasions where the state asked for a waiver to allow just one pilot to fly the new helicopters. The FAA eventually agreed. Now State Police say they have changed their minds and will comply with the FAA’s original mandate and staff each aircraft with two pilots - a move which will require 20 additional pilots and cost the state police at least another $2 million a year.
And today Ruppersberger says he now supports the FAA's stance. "If the FAA says you need two, then I’m for that,” he said.
It's the type of behind the scenes wrangling former US Marine and helicopter enthusiast Dick Johnson says is troubling.
"They don't know what they don't know about the AW-139, it's more a complex aircraft of than the dauphin,” Johnson said.
Recently he says a pilot with the agency told him the tires of an older helicopter known as a Dauphin exploded during a landing because someone forgot to release the brakes. It’s an incident that state police would not confirm.
FOX45 did ask state police for an on camera interview but they declined, telling us they could not make someone available.
Still, for Johnson, his main concern is the safety of pilots, and their passengers, and the future of a big, taxpayer funded investment.