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UK Coastguard helicopters put scuba divers’ lives at risk

PORTLAND, UK (26 Oct 2008) — Coastguard officers have broken rank to express their concerns over two new rescue helicopters which they fear are putting lives at risk.

A series of technical problems has hit the £25 million aircraft which have covered a 150-mile stretch of the south coast since they came into service this year.

Last week, a dying man was left dangling in mid-air for half a mile after the winch on one helicopter broke down during a sea rescue.

And earlier this month, the helicopters were grounded indefinitely at night because of problems with specialist search equipment on board.

A private helicopter from Ireland has now had to be drafted in to cover the area during the hours of darkness.

But its crew are limited to how many hours they can fly and it is claimed that on one occasion, the south coast was left without emergency cover.

The £25 million Agusta Westland AW139 helicopters are smaller than the Sikorskys they replaced and officers claim there is not enough room to fit two stretchers in the back.

Branding the new helicopters “not fit for purpose”, an unnamed coastguard said: “They are faster but there is nowhere near as much room in the back. They can’t even carry two stretchers.

“The Sikorskys are older but there is much more space in the back for the crews to work in if they had a casualty.

“The crews want a helicopter that will save people’s lives and they are worried. The new aircraft can’t lift as many people and the technology does not work.”

The winch failure occurred when diver Jan Karon, 54, from Bristol, was being lifted into the back of the Portland coastguard helicopter on Sunday.

When he and the winchman were 10 feet up the winch stalled, leaving them suspended in mid-air. The pilot flew half a mile to the nearest land and as soon as it touched down, Mr Karon was placed in the back of the helicopter and airlifted to hospital where he later died.

The source said that since the two helicopters were grounded for night-time flights, there had been the risk of having no cover at all for the south coast. “With the current restriction in force, it is grounded from nautical twilight which is 7pm, but that is bound to get earlier.

UK Coastguard helicopters put scuba divers’ lives at risk

The £25 million Agusta Westland AW139 helicopters (above photo) are smaller than the Sikorskys they replaced and officers claim there is not enough room to fit two stretchers in the back.

“The Irish helicopter needs an Irish crew. The pilots and crew are obviously limited to how many hours they can fly and on one night this week, they had used up their flying hours which meant that Portland and Solent had no air coverage for two to three hours. If something had happened off the Dorset coast, a helicopter would have had to be brought in from Cornwall, Wales or further up the country.

“This is placing an enormous amount of pressure on search and rescue co-ordinators. These helicopters are not fit for purpose.”

When the two new helicopters were unveiled in April, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency claimed they would be faster than the Sikorskys and have a greater range. A spokesman said they would persevere with the new aircraft and had a contract with helicopter firm CHC that ran until 2012.

He added: “There is a scheme in place which allows deductions to be made for non-performance which will be used in this respect. Should the problems escalate and progress is not forthcoming, we will be seeking measures allowing a last resort of termination of the contract.”

He said Canada-based CHC had supplied a temporary aircraft “until such time issues with the new aircraft were resolved”.

A spokesman for CHC said of night-time operations: “Safety is absolutely paramount.

“CHC is working with the manufacturer to address these issues and, as a contingency measure, is deploying another search and rescue aircraft from its wider fleet.”


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