Government lacked helicopter advice

High-ranking Cayman Islands government officials admitted Wednesday that the country did not have adequate advice to help it decide what type of helicopter to purchase for the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.

‘We got into something that we didn’t have the expertise to get into,’ Chief Secretary Donovan Ebanks said during a meeting of Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee.

Mr. Ebanks told committee members that the government’s main advisor up to the time when the CI$1.8 million Eurocopter was bought was former Police Commissioner Stuart Kernohan. Mr. Kernohan is a pilot and had previously flown the Cayman Helicopters aircraft here under the supervision of owner/operator Jerome Begot.

‘Knowing how to drive doesn’t mean you’re competent to manage Vampt Motors,’ Mr. Ebanks said.

Cabinet members recommended Tuesday that the helicopter should be shipped to the Cayman Islands and put into use once RCIPS can get an air support unit together, possibly by December.

Auditor General Dan Duguay told the committee that the price paid for the 1999 Eurocopter EC 135-T1 model was reasonable at the time and had been purchased in a professional manner.

‘They may not have bought the right machine, but once they did, they got a good price for it,’ Mr. Duguay told the committee.

He pointed out that there was documented evidence that Mr. Kernohan considered 36 helicopter models in his search for an aircraft, only two of which were within the government’s price range. Only one of those aircraft was previously outfitted for police use.

‘There is no used helicopter market,’ Mr. Duguay said. ‘The sole-sourcing … was done in a reasonable manner. The question that needs to be asked is; did you buy the right thing?’

Varying answers to that query were given in the course of the committee hearing.

Civil Aviation Authority Director Richard Smith said there would be essentially no problem using the helicopter as it is currently outfitted for drug interdiction, police patrol and search operations. However, he said rescue operations and medical transport would likely not be allowed with this aircraft.

He also noted that no certificate of airworthiness has been given to the Eurocopter craft, even though it has been registered in the Cayman Islands.

‘The process has quite a ways to go,’ Mr. Smith said. ‘The helicopter could be brought here but it could not be used until … police received air operation certification.’

Assistant Deputy Chief Secretary Eric Bush said general guidelines as to what the helicopter should be used for were produced in a November 2006 Cabinet meeting that included; border security, police pursuits, critical incident response, surveillance, search and rescue, quick deployment of police resources to the Sister Islands, and casualty evacuations.

Mr. Bush said the Eurocopter would be able to legally perform some of those functions, but others would fall outside its capabilities.

Police Commissioner David Baines took a more positive view. ‘I’m fairly content that this helicopter, in its current format, will do 90 per cent of what we’re asking it to do, maybe 95 per cent,’ he said.

He said the new helicopter would give police a number of tools the Cayman Helicopters craft does not have now. Those include a forward-looking infrared camera, a public address system, and ‘night lights’ that allow police to illuminate a certain area during a suspect search, for instance.

‘There appears to have been very little discussion between Cabinet and the police commissioner on the operational capability of the helicopter,’ Opposition MLA Moses Kirkconnell said.

Mr. Duguay said it was his opinion that technical issues concerning the helicopter weren’t explained adequately to the government.

‘Without that information, it was difficult for non-experts to ask questions,’ Mr. Duguay said. ‘It was incumbent upon the (then)-commissioner…to make it clear what this helicopter can do.’

Mr. Kernohan was not invited to provide testimony before the Public Accounts Committee, although he was interviewed for Mr. Duguay’s report.