Helicopter communication murky

An Auditor General’s report on the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service’s much maligned helicopter has found poor communication was at the heart of a dispute over the machine’s operational capabilities.

duguay

Dan Duguay

In a report released late last week, Auditor General Day Duguay states there was no clear documentation of what the helicopter was required to be able to do, leading to misunderstanding and confusion that ended in a public slanging match between Cabinet members and Police Commissioner Stuart Kernohan in September.

Mr. Duguay writes: ‘I believe that the current operational restrictions placed on the helicopter would severely limit its usefulness for police interdiction or other duties.’

However, the AG raises the possibility that some of the restrictions relating to whether the helicopter is allowed to legally fly between Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands and the use of an auto pilot could be resolved between the RCIPS and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Cayman Islands.

‘If the restrictions are adjusted, it will be up to the RCIPS and Cabinet to decide if the current helicopter can fulfil its role,’ the report states.

‘If the restrictions cannot be modified, then I believe the helicopter should be sold and the concept of an Aerial Support Unit for the RCIPS should be re-examined,’ he said.

While a lot of time has been spent on the machine, Mr. Duguay notes that the helicopter was purchased at a price below its market value and most, if not all, of the $2.96 million spent on it would be recouped if it were sold now.

Disputes over the helicopter’s capabilities in September led Cabinet ministers to publicly declare that Mr. Kernohan had misled them about what the machine was able to do.

Mr. Kernohan, who remains on required leave pending the outcome of an investigation into his possible misuse of public office, fired back with a scathing two page statement saying Cabinet was ‘aware of every detail, every step of the way.’ He said the Cabinet ministers’ claims appeared to be ‘purposely misleading, politically motivated, possibly slanderous or libellous and certainly incorrect.’

As the AG did not attend the briefings Mr. Kernohan had with Cabinet on the helicopter’s purchase, and because no transcripts exist of them, Mr. Duguay said he could not form an opinion as to which version of events is true.

However, he adds: ‘In my review, I can find no Cabinet paper or other type of written communication that shows these operational limitations were ever discussed with Cabinet.’

The situation was compounded, Mr. Duguay said, because concerns about the operational problems were not fully discussed with the Civil Aviation Authority, meaning there was no clear understanding of the helicopter’s limitations until August 2008.

Mr. Duguay said part of the problem was that no comprehensive and detailed analysis of what the RCIPS wanted the helicopter to do was ever completed.

IFR Vs VFR

One of the main areas of dispute between Cabinet and Mr. Kernohan has centred on whether Cabinet was informed that the helicopter only had Visual Flight Rules Capabilities – restricting its ability to fly in low-conditions at night, in inclement weather and between Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands – rather than Instrument Flight Rules capabilities.

IFR capabilities would give the machine greater capacity to fly in inclement weather, at night and away from Grand Cayman beyond a certain distance, but it would have made the helicopter substantially costlier and would have required additional pilot training, Mr. Duguay notes.

While Mr. Duguay said he could find no evidence in the documents that he has reviewed that the RCIPS were instructed to buy a helicopter with IFR capabilities, after reading a 23 November Cabinet paper, Mr. Duguay said he was forced to assume that the RCIPS would be buying an IFR helicopter.

‘However, the final purchase is a VFR machine,’ the report states. ‘This appears to be the main source of the present confusion among elected officials when they were recently made aware of the operational limitations of the helicopter purchased by the RCIPS.’

While the distinction between IFR and VFR capabilities might mean the machine cannot do some things such as undertake medical evacuations in bad weather or low light, the difference is not so big when it comes to normal policing activities such as surveillance or assisting ground and marine units, Mr. Duguay continued.

To be effective in such policing activities, the helicopter must be able to ‘see’ the area or observe the suspect, meaning IFR capabilities are of little use, he explained.

‘If the helicopter pilot cannot see the criminal, it can do little to assist the marine unit that would be called to make the capture,’ the report states. ‘In short, the helicopter is only of use under VFR conditions and therefore the lack of IFR instrumentation has little direct effect on its operational capacities for police activities.’

While that argument could have justified the Commissioner overlooking the fact that the machine did not have IFR capabilities, Mr. Duguay suggests that Mr. Kernohan never put that argument to Cabinet, leading to the confusion.

‘This seems to be a critical opportunity lost to have common consensus on what capabilities were being purchased and a reaffirmation that this was the right way to proceed,’ he states.

While the idea of a multi-role helicopter would have made it easier for Mr. Kernohan to ‘sell’ the idea of an air-support unit to Cabinet, Mr. Duguay said having a helicopter that could perform so many tasks may have proven impossible.

‘It would certainly result in an aircraft that would be very expensive to buy and too expensive to operate in its everyday role of surveillance and detection,’ the report states.

Throughout the 11 Cabinet meeting in which the helicopter was discussed, operational capabilities were never listed on the agenda, and based on the information he has reviewed, only in one meeting in November 2006 were operational capabilities even vaguely reviewed, Mr. Duguay reports.

It wasn’t until the Civil Aviation Authority raised its concerns with Cabinet at a 26 August meeting this year that the issue of operational capabilities came to a head, Mr. Duguay said.

‘It seems to me that such a critical issue should have been discussed as soon as possible and ideally resolved before he helicopter was purchased,’ he said.

In the final analysis, there appeared to be a rush toward purchasing the helicopter, Mr. Duguay found, pointing out that a helicopter consultant that advised the RCIPS on the machine was not brought in until after the helicopter’s purchase.

Mr. Duguay said some problems – like whether the helicopter should be allowed to fly between the Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands – may be able to be resolved in negotiations between the CAA and the RCIPS.

He called for frank discussions between the RCIPS and Cabinet over what the helicopter can and cannot do before a decision is made on whether to keep the machine or sell it.

The helicopter is expected to remain in Louisianan, USA, until that question is resolved.

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