Agusta, MDHI again in battle for USCG helo bid

 - April 21, 2008, 5:58 AM

The U.S. Coast Guard is reportedly about to reopen for competition the acquisition of shipboard-based helicopters for maritime contraband interception operations, a task it has been conducting with Agusta A109s.

A USCG request for proposals (RFP) is expected late this month or early next month for eight to 12 armed twin-engine helicopters for the recently deployed high-seas drug-interdiction squadron, Hitron 10. The service has been operating the A109s from the decks of its cutters under a 33-month lease contract that will expire next January. The Coast Guard is believed to be considering a number of different helicopter types, including A109s and MD Explorers, and is expected to decide before issuing the RFP whether it will be leasing or procuring the helicopters. If the latter happens, it will be the first armed aircraft purchase by the Coast Guard since 1927, an industry source said.

The Coast Guard conducted a dual-phase at-sea evaluation of MD 900 Explorers from 1998 through April 2000, during which it favorably commented on the MD Helicopters Inc. (MDHI) twin’s compatibility with shipboard operations. The USCG was said to be especially impressed with the safety and on-deck maneuverability provided by the Explorer’s Notar (no tail rotor) anti-torque system.

However, Coast Guard preference suddenly shifted, and in summer 2000 the service awarded a lease contract to Agusta, which was initially to expire this September. Deployment delays due to late delivery of fully qualified aircraft led to a three-month lease extension. Soon after the contract was written, suspicions arose that Agusta won the Coast Guard bid by offering the A109s below cost. Allegations that Agusta was able to do so by diverting Italian government funds from intended purposes to the USCG deal became the focus of a government probe, results of which have so far not been published.

Industry speculation centered on the timing of the USCG-Agusta pact, coming as it did when the service was experiencing a budget crunch that prompted a significant reduction in force.

Although the Agustas are reported to have achieved several stops and captures in the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean, the Coast Guard is believed to be concerned with the helicopters’ shipboard compatibility and mission endurance, compromised by required weight/fuel tradeoffs. The A109 has a reputation within the industry as a high-performance machine that requires frequent expert attention, a helicopter described by one source as a “Ferrari with a rotor on top.” Mission availability does not seem to be an issue, being reported as comparable to the 98.6- to 100 percent achieved by Explorers during their at-sea evaluation.

Coast Guard contracting officers have advised industry marketers that the RFP will call for twin-turbine helicopters having the same basic capabilities as the previously evaluated Explorers and currently deployed A109s, but with enhanced, state-of-the-art mission communications and target-acquisition systems. Said a marketing manager for one helicopter OEM, the Coast Guard has “a much better idea of what it wants now.” The service has told bidders to expect a 60- to 90-day response period.