The Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard’s (TTAG) dwindling air assets, coupled with the resignations of over 17 experienced helicopter pilots in the last two years, has left a critical arm of this nation’s national security infrastructure operating on bare bones and resulted in the loss of millions of taxpayers’ dollars.
The issue of the unit’s ability to mobilise air surveillance came up in the public domain on Wednesday, after Police Commissioner Gary Griffith had to rent a National Helicopter Services Limited (NHSL) helicopter for aerial support during the manhunt for eight prisoners who escaped from the Golden Grove Prison in Arouca. A national security source also subsequently told Guardian media that of the 10 aircraft initially available to them to fight crime from the air, only two were now operational.
Yesterday, however, a senior source working at the TTAG said the Air Guard was also not “only crippled in the helicopter department but also in the fixed wing assets area.”
“Apart from the problem with the Augusta helicopters, we have two C-26 Metroliner aircraft that have obsolete surveillance equipment that is not even working,” he said.
The surveillance equipment for these planes shows up as a bulge at the bottom of the place near its tail.
Under the United National Congress government, the purchase of four AugustaWestland helicopters was made to bolster the ability of the TTAG.
But in 2017, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said the Government had decided it could not fund the initiative due to the cost of maintaining the aircraft.
“We took a decision at the level of 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.
However, the effect of grounding those helicopters has had a domino effect on the TTAG.
The TTAG source said, “Of those four helicopters, two are unserviceable while the other two are serviceable but it will be a hefty cost to have them maintained.”
He explained that the “two serviceable” Augusta helicopters that are in preservation mode will be maintained by the NHSL, which has the contract to service them. The NHSL has, however, been unable to fulfil this mandate because they themselves are cash-strapped. He revealed that to get these helicopters operational again would cost millions.
While the burning issue of non-functioning Augusta helicopters has been in the limelight for quite some time, the shortage of pilots and training for the unit remained a shaded issue that needed to be brought to light, the source said.
“There is no current crew to man any of these aircraft (planes and helicopters), not from the back end, which is the winch operations, or the front end - which are the pilots. None of them have been given updated training by Civil Aviation. Usually, this type of training takes place every 12 months to ensure everyone is up to speed,” he said.
In fact, he painted a dire situation about the number of pilots now in the unit.
“In 2014 we had 23 pilots here. Commander Diaz left around that time, he was the most senior. After 2017 when the helicopters were grounded, 17 more pilots left last year over a period of time. They had between 8-12 years of experience. Most decided to go and work in the oil and gas sector.”
At the moment, he said there are three active helicopter pilots and two whose duties have been altered. However, the source said these pilots have not flown in more than two years. On the aircraft side, the numbers are similar. There are three active pilots and two on contract.
In most cases, the senior TTAG source said the most aircraft pilots can do is “start and shut down the aircraft. They cannot even tax it down the runaway.”
He said these aircraft would have done work seven days a week in the past for close to eight hours but now the work is far and few between.
The majority of TTAG pilots had hinted at their intention to leave, he said, “but Command never did anything to assist and there was poor human resource management and they lost some of the best pilots we had. Since then they have not made any attempt to fill any of those positions.”
The situation that now faces the TTAG could have been avoided if the requests and conditions laid bare by the pilots prior to their departure were addressed, according to the source.
About the T&T Air Guard
The Air Wing of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force was formed in February 1966 and was initially part of the Coast Guard and was called the Air Wing of the Coast Guard.
But in 1977 it was separated as its own entity. In 2005 it was renamed the Trinidad & Tobago Air Guard (TTAG). Its purposes are to protect and patrol Trinidad and Tobago’s airspace and it is also used for transport, search and rescue and liaison missions.
Its bases are located at the Piarco International Airport, ANR International Airport and Chaguaramas.