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Dominica suffers widespread destruction after Maria – TTAG SAR aircraft sit idle as political debate on cost continues

The Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard operated four Leonardo AW139 helicopters in SAR capacity before their grounding in July of 2017

Trinidad and Tobago’s government leaves four of the country’s government funded TTAG search and rescue aircraft grounded, sending private company helicopters to assist rescue and recovery efforts along with other government agency assistance.

Trinidad and Tobago's highly trained SAR crew members sit idle alongside pilots, unable to assist rescue efforts in hard hit Domenica after Hurricane Maria devastated the area. Photo by Ryan Mason, Copyright Heliweb Magazine 2017.
Trinidad and Tobago’s highly trained SAR crew members sit idle alongside pilots, unable to assist rescue efforts in hard hit Dominica after Hurricane Maria devastated the area. Photo by Ryan Mason – Copyright Heliweb Magazine 2017.

The island of Dominica, population just 72,000 people, lays in partial ruin today after Hurricane Maria scored a direct hit on the small island as it continues its path towards the United States territory of Puerto Rico. The citizens of Dominica currently are without power, running water, and any contact with the outside world as Maria  took out the country’s communication network. Early reports state that more than 70% of the country’s homes had roofs ripped off, while many more lay in complete ruin.

Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, also one of the affected as Maria made landfall on the island as his roof was ripped while he updated concerned citizens as the hurricane hit. Communication from the island nation ceased shortly after as communication lines were also damaged.

This is the second direct hit for Dominica, having still not fully recovered from the damage occurring from Tropical Storm Erika that made landfall on August 22 in 2015 that took the lives of thirty citizens on the island located in the Lesser Antilles chain almost 300 nautical miles to the north of Trinidad and Tobago.

As the full extent of damage became known in the light of day after Erika passed in 2015, Dominica’s government officials put out an urgent call for help from surrounding countries. The first to respond to the request was Trinidad and Tobago’s elite Air Guard unit (TTAG), who dispatched two of their Leonardo AW139 SAR equipped aircraft immediately, scrambling two crews, that was later extended two a total of four crews as the relief effort carried on through three weeks that saw TTAG crews and aircraft participate in over fifty separate rescues, one that involved the evacuation of an entire village of 28 residents from storm damaged areas affected by landslides in the wake of the storms passing.

This year’s record hurricane season that shows no signs of letting up saw Hurricane Maria making a direct path to put the eye of the hurricane directly over Dominica, with winds in excess of 156MPH, hitting land as a category 5 hurricane, whereas Tropical Storm Erika hit with winds at just 56MPH in strength.

The difference in response to this much more devastating hurricane from Trinidad and Tobago, is the lack of dispatching immediate assistance by way of the country’s four Leonardo AW139 search and rescue helicopters operated by TTAG. Today, the helicopters still sit idle in their hangar in a corner of Piarco International Airport located on the outskirts of the nations capital Port of Spain. The TTAG helicopters have sat idle since political maneuvering by the ruling government saw the unit’s operational capability effectively cease overnight after the government refused to pay an installment on a continuing service agreement with U.K. based Cobham, as detailed in a story Heliweb Magazine wrote in July after word of the grounding of the highly decorated and award winning program became public.

Trinidad and Tobago's fleet of Leonardo AW139's currently sits idle at Piarco International Airport after a July Parliamentary decision to ground the award winning program. Photo by Ryan Mason - Copyright Heliweb Magazine 2017.
Trinidad and Tobago’s fleet of Leonardo AW139’s currently sits idle at Piarco International Airport after a July Parliamentary decision to ground the award winning program. Photo by Ryan Mason – Copyright Heliweb Magazine 2017.

The Trinidadian government at the time agreed to consider several options submitted as revisions of the existing contract by Cobham in an effort by the company to reach agreement with the government on a price and service adjustment that would see the TTAG program return to the air. A decision was expected after the next meeting of Parliament, expected in late July or early August. However, the program at the time of writing still sits idle along with the four AW139’s that could currently be providing lifesaving search and rescue operations to assist the much in need Dominican government.

In a Facebook post made by the Office of the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago posted on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister announced that Trinidad and Tobago would be sending assistance from several government departments that included the Prime Ministers Office, The Ministries of National Defense, Foreign and Caricom Affairs, Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force, Office of Disaster Preparedness, and the Immigration Department.

Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Ministers office published this Facebook post regarding the response to Domenica on Tuesday, stating that the government would be mobilizing assets from National Helicopter Services, a for profit entity instead of mobilizing its own government owned TTAG SAR AW139's that have been grounded since July due to a contract dispute with Cobham Aviation over ongoing program costs.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Ministers office published this Facebook post regarding the response to Dominica on Tuesday, stating that the government would be mobilizing assets from National Helicopter Services, a for profit entity instead of mobilizing its own government owned TTAG SAR AW139’s that have been grounded since July due to a contract dispute with Cobham Aviation over ongoing program costs.

In an as yet unexplained move by the TT Government, it was also announced that the country would be sending helicopter assets from National Helicopter Services Limited, instead of pursuing a temporary measure to allow TTAG aircraft and crew to respond to Dominica or announcing a permanent solution to the months overdue decision on the future of the TTAG program due to the urgency of emergency response services needed by their neighbors to the north.

National Helicopters is a joint venture for profit enterprise owned by two government departments in Trinidad that primarily provides support for the Oil and Gas industry providing offshore transportation services with multiple S-76 model helicopters not equipped for search and rescue. Shortly before the announcement of the grounding of the TTAG AW139’s, NHS received delivery of a used Airbus H135 rumored locally to have been purchased for a future air ambulance role, which was joined shortly after by an AW139 configured as a search and rescue capable aircraft with a winch. At the time of arrival, it was not known if NHS had or has trained rescue crew or pilots trained to fly the AW139 or in what capacity the helicopter would be used in the future at the time of publication of this story.

Trinidad's National Helicopter Services Limited operates this AW139 painted in Trinidad and Tobago national color scheme that arrived just a week prior to the announcement of the grounding of the governments TTAG SAR program that owns four Leonardo AW139 helicopters. Comments have been made in the Trinidad Parliament of NHS taking over the role performed by TTAG, although the company has not announced that the 139 has any official role currently. Photo supplied annonymously.
Trinidad’s National Helicopter Services Limited operates this AW139 painted in Trinidad and Tobago national color scheme that arrived just a week prior to the announcement of the grounding of the governments TTAG SAR program that owns four Leonardo AW139 helicopters. Comments have been made in the Trinidad Parliament of NHS taking over the role performed by TTAG, although the company has not announced that the 139 has any official role currently. Photo supplied anonymously.

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