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Helicopter-maker disputes Coast Guard claim

One of the world's leading helicopter makers has disputed claims made by the Irish Coast Guard that the Air Corps does not have the equipment to carry out search-and-rescue missions after the Government signed a controversial €500m contract with a civilian operator.

Anglo-Italian firm Agusta- Westland, which supplied the main helicopter used by the Air Corps, the AW139, said it did not help any government to make a decision on a search-and-rescue service if such an important decision was made with "incomplete or inaccurate information".

Last year, then Transport Minister Noel Dempsey signed a 10-year contract with CHC Ireland for a new rescue service using large Sikorsky S92 aircraft at more then twice the cost of the existing service.

In a statement to the Sunday Independent the helicopter company firmly rebuts many of the points made by the director of the Irish Coast Guard, Chris Reynolds.

Mr Reynolds said there would be no cost savings if the search-and-rescue (SAR) service was carried out by the Air Corps, and he criticised the helicopter used by the force saying that it had not earned a "good reputation" when used by Britain.

However, communications manager with the firm Geoff Russell told The Sunday Independent that a headline in the paper saying the corps was not equipped to provide rescue services was misleading as:

• Air Corps crews and helicopters are currently equipped and qualified to perform SAR missions by day.

• Equipping the AW139 choppers for night-time ops would mean "minor modifications".

• The price would be a fifth of the €8m cost reported to modify four helicopters.

• The time involved would be days and not six months as stated.

• The cost of training each Air Corps pilot in house would be a tenth of the €380,000 reported in the memo.

• The chopper can operate over the Atlantic rescuing 10 survivors at 220 miles range.

He conceded that the helicopters did have some initial teething problems when introduced by the UK Coast Guard but these were resolved quickly and the aircraft has now been in service for three years and have proved "highly capable and reliable".

Sunday Independent