Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Maryland State Police helicopters grounded after cracks found in rotor blade paint

All of the Maryland State Police helicopters were ordered grounded last weekend — and four remained out of service Wednesday — after inspectors found cracked paint on the tail rotor blades of two of the agency's aircraft, State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said.

The issue was discovered on one of the $12 million Leonardo AW139 helicopters during a routine inspection on Jan. 9, but once the rotor blade was sanded, an inspector determined the cracks did not extend beyond the paint, Shipley said. The blade was repainted and reinstalled.

But when cracked paint was found on a second helicopter's rotor blades on Sunday, the State Police aviation commander ordered the entire fleet to be grounded for inspections, he said.

"We're doing this out of an abundance of caution to make sure there isn't an issue with the integrity of the blade itself," Shipley said. "At this time, all that has been verified is cracks in the paint on some of the blades."

State Police have 10 of the roughly 3-year-old helicopters, each of which have four rotor blades, he said. Seven of the helicopters are in service at any given time at locations across the state: Baltimore, Easton, Frederick, Joint Base Andrews, St. Mary's County, Salisbury and Cumberland.

Twenty-four blades — six helicopters' worth — passed inspections and were being reinstalled. Twelve other blades were sent back to the manufacturer's site in Philadelphia for further inspection, and a dozen replacements were being shipped to Maryland Wednesday afternoon.

The last four blades were already in Philadelphia, on a helicopter that is undergoing maintenance, Shipley said. Those blades will be inspected as part of that maintenance.

An engineer from Leonardo, formerly known as AgustaWestland, came to Maryland to assist with the inspections, Shipley said. Messages to the manufacturer's spokespeople in Philadelphia and its headquarters in Rome were not returned.

Del. Jay Jalisi, a Baltimore County Democrat who had been briefed on the issue, said he was concerned about the lack of availability of the helicopters during repairs. He said having too few helicopters in the air could be detrimental to public safety.

"My concern is the Maryland State Police needs to work on this expeditiously," said Jalisi, who sits on the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Helicopters in Baltimore, Easton and Frederick were back up as of Wednesday, Shipley said. The one at Joint Base Andrews was expected to return to service sometime Wednesday afternoon, and the one in St. Mary's was expected to be operational Thursday morning, he said.

The helicopters in Salisbury and Cumberland were still awaiting new blades, which were expected to arrive Wednesday afternoon, Shipley said. Until those are installed, the Easton helicopter and Delaware State Police will respond to calls on the Eastern Shore, and the Frederick helicopter will cover the Cumberland helicopter's calls, he said.

Delaware State Police responded to one medevac call, and U.S. Park Police did four during the time the helicopters were grounded, Shipley said.

"At no time during this period was medevac service interrupted," Shipley said. "We have [memorandums of understanding] with allied law-enforcement agencies to provide assistance to them, and them to us, when needed."


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