Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mesa police helicopter that crashed was set to be replaced


It was a matter of moments. 
After an abrupt engine failure, Mesa police officers had fewer than 15 seconds to crash-land a police helicopter in a Gilbert alfalfa field the morning of June 8.

No one was hurt, but a pending Mesa City Council decision that had attracted little attention outside the aerospace industry became a lot more pressing.

The council on June 16 is expected to vote on a $3.2 million purchasing contract with MD Helicopters to replace the oldest of Mesa's three police helicopters, which happens to be the one that went down.

Bought in 1994, the MD 500E racked up nearly 20,000 flight hours.

Police spokesman Sgt. Tony Landato said it can take up to a year or more to get a new helicopter on-site and running, especially if modifications or additions need to be made. Given what he called the department's constant attention to maintenance, Landato said its "full intent was to fly this helicopter until its replacement was ready."

Landato said it would be a stretch to link the helicopter's age to the engine failure, since parts are replaced as needed. But since the copter lost much of its tail section in the crash landing, it might be grounded permanently anyway.

"There are a lot of variables that we simply don't know much about yet," he said.

The first step in getting more information involves a Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board investigation, which will attempt to determine what happened and why.

Next, someone will have to evaluate the helicopter and certify it's reparable. Even then, the city could decide repairs are too expensive and decide to try to sell it as is.

In the meantime, the department's two remaining helicopters can cover the roughly 56 hours per week the department maintains as air presence, Landato said.

"If there's an impact right now, it's anticipated that it'll be pretty negligible," he said.

As Mesa weighs what to do with the old helicopter, the founder of a Mesa-based aviation firm is challenging the city's purchasing plan for the new one.

Using public-safety bonds, the city would buy a new MD 530F, a model police say offers a "more robust performance," particularly in hot weather.

Tina Cannon, president at Phoenix Heliparts, wrote to council members in late May arguing there were cheaper yet equally effective options that could save taxpayers more than $1 million. She said her facility houses a 3-year-old model that has only 126 hours on it.

"It's owned by a billionaire, an extremely wealthy individual who has cut no corners, has always done the best maintenance, has always used the best products in it, and it's being sold," Cannon said, adding that she "has no skin in the game" as the sale profits wouldn't go to her.

Cannon plans to attend the June 16 meeting to raise her questions publicly, she said.

The city's preference for new aircraft is likely tied to a less-than-ideal experience the Police Department previously had with a used model.

"There's the tradeoff of paying more for a new one or saving on a used one that may have the potential for more maintenance or repairs," Landato said.

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