Years after a multimillion-dollar contract to replace the state's fleet of aged medevac helicopters caused controversy in Annapolis, two newly purchased aircraft arrived Tuesday at the aviation command of the Maryland State Police.
Four more are expected to fly into the police facility at Martin State Airport in Middle River this week, state police said — behind initial schedules for the new fleet's arrival.
The four remaining AW139 helicopters of the 10 purchased by the state for $121.7 million also will arrive soon, said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.
Police pilots already have received some training directly from aircraft manufacturer AgustaWestland, Shipley said, but other members of flight crews — including paramedics — will have to begin learning how the aircraft, and all their medical accoutrements, function. That other training should begin immediately, Shipley said.
"The flight paramedics have a lot of training to do working in the back with the medical equipment, with the new setup," Shipley said. "They don't expect to be flying actual missions, medevacs or real law-enforcement missions, with these aircraft until late spring or early summer."
The AW139 helicopters, which are capable of transporting two patients, will replace 10 Dauphin model helicopters in the state's fleet that are more than 20 years old and can only transport one patient , police said. The new helicopters also represent a shift from the old ones since they require a co-pilot, making them more expensive to operate.
Their purchase was inspired initially by a crash of a state police Dauphin helicopter in September 2008, killing four — including teenager Ashley J. Younger — and prompting an examination of Maryland's emergency flight procedures.
Multiple lawsuits were filed, including one by the state against the federal government blaming traffic controllers for the crash, despite a National Transportation Safety Board finding that the pilot was at fault. Debates erupted in Annapolis between police and legislators over whether to privatize the fleet.
The crash also added fuel to a national debate over whether medevac helicopters are overused, following multiple crash-related deaths of patients who were being transported for injuries not considered life-threatening.
The state eventually decided to purchase the new helicopters and keep their operation under the state police.
In a news release about the new helicopters in October, Gov. Martin O'Malley's office said they contain state-of-the-art technology recommended by the Federal Aviation Administration, including "the latest in avionics and safety equipment" and night-vision and terrain-awareness-warning systems.
The expected delivery date time for the helicopters has long been up in the air.
Following the safety debate in Annapolis, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved a $72 million contract with Agusta Aerospace Corp. of Philadelphia in October 2010 for six helicopters, with the option of paying the same price of $11.7 million per helicopter, plus an inflation fee, for as many as six more.
At the time, Agusta was the only one of four manufacturers to submit a final bid. Comptroller Peter Franchot, a member of the public works board, called the single bid a "failure of the procurement process" but approved it anyway. At the time, he said he did so to avoid the consequences of rejecting the contract and delaying the aging fleet's replacement.
O'Malley, also a member of the board, said the contract had been vetted thoroughly.
The aircraft's delivery was estimated to take 18 months, which would have put their arrival in April 2012.
Shipley, the state police spokesman, said police and AgustaWestland were awaiting inspections of the helicopters by the FAA, in part for a review of a newly designed searchlight on the aircraft.
"We didn't know when that would occur," Shipley said.
Now, all 10 of the helicopters slated for the state police have passed inspection, Shipley said. Officials with AgustaWestland were completing last-minute checks on each this week, accounting for their staggered arrival.
Police divide the state into seven distinct helicopter service areas, Shipley said, and will begin using the helicopters in one area at a time.
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