High-tech eye in the sky: Cayman chopper among most advanced in the region

When Cayman’s second helicopter returns next month, the RCIPS Air Operations Unit will boast of being the most advanced in the region with the latest modifications to its helicopter fleet which will be especially useful as the hurricane season stretches on.

That’s the word from RCIPS Air Operations Unit Commander Steve Fitzgerald.

“Obviously, we’ve had, with this particular helicopter, some quite reasonable successes in the past year. Without a doubt the fact that we’re going to have two on island for the hurricane season it gives us a greater lifting capability and it is also designed for the operation we need to do,” Fitzgerald told the Cayman Compass in an interview Friday.

Capability demonstrated

Premier Wayne Panton and Governor Martyn Roper were taken on a flight tour on the recently modified chopper on Friday, as part of a hurricane exercise with Cayman Islands Regiment members.

The local leaders flew to Bodden Town on the chopper to observe the hurricane exercise and were then flown back to George Town.

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Panton said he was impressed with the demonstration of the helicopter’s capability, which he said benefits not just Cayman but fellow Overseas Territories. He added he was also impressed with the regiment reservists.

“A long time ago there was a lot of uncertainty about the value of the helicopter. We now have two. I think it has demonstrated its usefulness. It is something I think is a very, very important part of our provision of security for the country. It is an asset that is utilised in many different ways including [for] medical evacuations. It serves the country very well. It was an investment that was well-made,” Panton said.

Roper said prior to the exercise, he and the premier, both of whom co-chaired that National Hazard Management Executive Council, were briefed by officials on preparations for this hurricane season. He added that he too was pleased with the skills demonstration from the Air Ops Unit and the reservists.

“We’ve seen the exercise by the regiment, and I think it’s just really reassuring to see the preparations that are going on ahead of hurricane season. As the premier said, I do think the regiment is a real asset for us. It’s an additional level of skills that we now have on island available immediately should the worst happen,” Roper said.

He added that the regiment is now at 100 part-time reservists and the next cohort will be recruited next year.

“The UK military will send a team out again to train those [new recruits]. So the key now is to really embed the team that we’ve got; it’s over 80% Caymanian, it’s a diverse team with lots of skills and we have a lot of these people who have day jobs and give up their time to come and work for their country and support their community,” the governor said.

Modifications boost Air Ops capability

The chopper was handed over in December 2019 and was purchased by the Alden McLaughlin-led government with the United Kingdom government’s assistance. The chopper was sent back to Airbus for outfitting last year.

Fitzgerald said the current helicopter was delivered quickly due to the problems with the previous X-Ray-135 chopper. That chopper was damaged on lift-off and could not be repaired.

He said when the H-145 was delivered, there was no equipment on it.

“Last year it went away for the modifications… it’s got all the equipment on now to have the full functioning advance police helicopter. What you’ll see on it is the advanced camera system, which is down to the right [of the chopper],” he said, pointing out a night-time thermal image and daylight camera system.

He said it has a weather radar on the front, which improves safety when using the chopper in bad conditions.

“You can see the nose cone on the front and that allows us to be able to pick out the holes that we need to get through when the weather is bad… With the weather radar, with the optical systems and also using night vision goggles at night, this is probably one of the safest aircrafts we can fly in at any time,” Fitzgerald said.

Environmental benefits

The chopper, he said, also has a different sound which is an added advantage for operations.

“The H145 is actually one of the quietest helicopters in its class. It got authorisation to fly into the Grand Canyon, which not what many helicopters get, because they have very stringent noise requirements. Most of the benefit for the Cayman Islands is when we’re flying, our noise footprint is very low. Environmentally it is probably one of the best aircraft we can fly,” he said.

This is attributed to its tail rotor which is pulled in close and the fan feature, an added safety function that allows staff to work at the back of the chopper while it is running.

“As you’ve seen with the regiment exercise… we can have the tail rotor running without any danger to people at the back of the aircraft,” he said. This function is important when working on med-evac operations.

He said the chopper has winch capability for search and rescue, but the Air Ops team need more training on utilising the function safely which they will be doing in the coming months.

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