Dangerous Delays for the U.S. State Department’s New Rescue Choppers
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In 2010, the U.S. State Department announced plans to buy more than a dozen Sikorsky S-61T helicopters for its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
INL’s Office of Aviation owns the department’s fleet of more than 100 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft — making it larger than the air forces of many countries.
But as of July 17, the bulk of the the new choppers were sitting in storage in an INL “Air Wing” facility in Sanford, Florida, according to documents released on FedBizOpps, the U.S. government’s official contracting website. Of 15 S-61Ts, only five of them were flying actual operations — two in Cyprus and three in Iraq.
A State Department official told us that Sikorsky — now a part of defense giant Lockheed Martin — had trouble getting the new aircraft ready.
The timeline for getting all the S-61Ts into service is in line with State’s plan once the aircraft were received. However, receipt of the helicopters from the manufacturer was delayed due to issues associated with development of this new model of aircraft. Meanwhile, mission requirements also changed so the original plan for the aircraft was adjusted.
The S-61T is the latest variant in the storied S-61 family, which first took to the air more than a half century ago. In addition to becoming popular in the civilian market, the series came to include the U.S. Navy’s SH-3 Sea King anti-submarine helicopter and the U.S. Air Force’s HH-3E Jolly Green Giant rescue chopper.
The new T model has new composite main rotor blades and digital flight computers. State also planned to mount fast-firing miniguns on the helicopters for self-defense in dangerous locations.
With the S-61Ts finally in hand, the same official said the department has a firm timeline for getting them ready.
The S-61Ts were delivered to the Department in 2015 with the last one arriving in May. They were put into flyable storage while pilots and maintenance personal were trained and we prepare to integrate them into our active fleet.
Eight of the 13 aircraft State owns will be integrated into country operations by the end of July — three more will be integrated into country operations by 1 November pending current field tests. By 1 January 2016 all 13 will be out of the flyable storage category.
It’s unclear what will become of the other two aircraft listed in the contract announcement. Private military contractor DynCorp International is running the training program.
The company also provides the pilots that fly the S-61Ts overseas. While their primary mission in Cyprus is moving people and cargo around as needed, the two S-61Ts could help out if State needed to evacuate an embassy or consulate in the region.
Hopefully, the rest of the S-61Ts will be good to go before any such emergency.