Police consider replacing aging helicopter

Cost could be US$8M-$10M

Members of the RCIPS helicopter crew pose with Turks and Caicos officials shortly before flying back to Grand Cayman on Sept. 15, 2017, after providing relief and assistance after 2017’s Hurricane Irma. - Photo: RCIPS

The Royal Cayman Islands Police Eurocopter EC-135, which won international accolades for its search-and-rescue efforts during 2017’s hurricane season, is getting old.

The 1999 model helicopter had a projected useful life of about five years when it arrived in Cayman in early 2010 and by now has gone well beyond that date.

However, a thorough – and expensive – maintenance regime has kept the vehicle in peak condition over the years and RCIPS Air Support Unit commanders expect it to last at least another five years on patrol.

“The succession plan for the helicopter currently foresees replacement in about five years,” said Police Commissioner Derek Byrne.

“Given that the helicopter had only a five-year projection when it first arrived on island in 2010, the possibility of several more years’ use out of the helicopter after already eight years in operation reflects positively on how it has been maintained and the utility the Cayman Islands has gleaned from it.”

The success has come at a cost. Between 2013 and 2017, the Cayman Islands government spent a total of $2.1 million on maintenance for the aircraft – averaging just more than $425,000 per year.

The total aerial patrols budget for the helicopter unit during 2018 is stated as $1.6 million in government records. That includes everything government expects to pay for the operation of the Air Support Unit, including staffing costs, fuel, maintenance, insurance, hangar fees and all other related items. Air unit supervisor Steve Fitzgerald clarified those are “budgeted” costs, which can come in lower or higher depending on what occurs during the course of the financial year.

An example of the Airbus helicopter model being considered by the RCIPS.

Those expenses are significantly less than what it would cost to replace the helicopter unit, but the RCIPS acknowledges replacement of the aging Eurocopter will be required eventually. It’s a question of when it happens and how much the government wants to spend.

“Despite its performance in the Turks and Caicos Islands after Hurricane Irma, the current helicopter has a limited search and rescue capacity,” Mr. Byrne said. “Expanding this capacity has been identified as a requirement to complement the Cayman Islands coast guard and the Airbus 145 may be a more suitable model in this regard.”

The estimated cost of a new Airbus 145 model helicopter is between US$8 million to US$10 million (CI$6.56 million to CI$8.2 million).

In 2007, when the Eurocopter 135 model was purchased previously owned from Thames Valley police in the U.K., the cost was CI$1.8 million.

The Airbus can be used as an “air ambulance” and can carry up to eight people on board. It also has a rescue winch that can be used to lift people out of an area during emergency situations. Although the Eurocopter model has been used as a medical transport at times, it is not specifically designed for that use.

Replacement of such a vehicle is not like purchasing a car, police note. Helicopter manufacturers typically have client orders backed up for some time.

“Delivery of the helicopter can take up to two years from the placing of a contract,” Mr. Byrne said.

Commissioner Byrne said that during its eight years in service in Cayman, the helicopter has shown its usefulness time and again.

“It has … proven its necessity to the execution of RCIPS core policing functions, including traffic management, police pursuits and crime operations,” Mr. Byrne said. “The modernization and strengthening of policing on the Cayman Islands, as well as our border security going forward, will clearly mean continued expansion in air operations.”