The law enforcement agencies in this country are virtually crippled when it comes to fighting crime from the air, as barely any of the helicopters under the Ministry of National Security are functional. In fact, Guardian media has been told law enforcement can depend on only two helicopters for their intelligence exercises in the air.
The fact that a helicopter from the National Helicopter Services Limited had to be used in the manhunt for eight escapees from the Golden Grove Remand Yard in Arouca on Wednesday—which later crashed—initially raised several questions about the State’s inability to have helicopters for crucial operations.
These National Security helicopters are used for rescue missions, surveillance, drug interdiction and border control in some instances. The fleet under the ministry’s remit is ten, according to intelligence sources.
Top-ranked law enforcement sources speaking to Guardian Media on the condition of anonymity said the situation facing the protective services was grim, with “aerial support lacking in many instances.”
“There are four helicopters that are in the possession of the Strategic Services Agency (SSA). Two of them do not work and the other two work but are always in need of repair,” explained a high-level SSA source.
The source said that they had two that were functional but because they were quite old there “is always an issue of maintenance and repair.” In fact, one of the SSA helicopters was able to assist in the search for the escaped men late Wednesday evening and on Thursday in the Centeno area “because repairs were completed on Wednesday,” the source said.
“Helicopters are very expensive to maintain and there is also a balancing act involved,” the SSA source explained.
He indicated that the models the SSA have in their possession are the 355 model and the BO 105 models.
“What we have had to do is use parts from one of the helicopters that are not working in one of the helicopters that are operational,” he said.
Sources who had been familiar with operations at the National Operations Center (NOC), now rebranded to National Operations Fusion Centre, also said that the Viper One and Two helicopters that had been instrumental in assisting the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) before this unit was dismantled in 2010, have been grounded for more than four years with mechanical issues.
Also, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, in an address at the 2018 Divali Nagar celebrations, told the crowd that the Government could not afford the $200 million maintenance bill for four AugustaWestland helicopters that were purchased under the United National Congress government for use in the T&T Air Guard. The overall contract for those helicopters, comprising the aircraft and support package, was valued at US$348 million.
But that was not the only time the PM had indicated this intention.
In 2017, he also said, “We took a decision at the level of the Cabinet that we are not in a position to pay $200 million to maintain our four Augusta helicopters for one year. We just can’t afford that and if we can’t afford it the helicopters will stay on the ground.”
Rowley said then that even with crime rampant, “We are not without helicopters. The National Helicopter Service is there and we must ask why is the National Helicopter Service not playing a role? But we cannot continue paying 200 million for a foreign company to maintain the helicopters for 12 months. Clearly, at a time when we don’t have the money, we have to look at other alternatives.”
This means that of an initial fleet of 10 helicopters available for national security work, there are now only two on which they can reasonably rely.