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Nearly a dozen new helicopters purchased for the

U.S. Border
Patrol
are unsafe to fly because they are stiff, tiring to pilots and need frequent adjustment, according to official reports.

The General Accounting Office — Congress’ investigative arm — has determined that “Border Patrol pilots, mechanics and sector managers lack confidence in the ability of the MD 600N to safely, efficiently and reliably perform.”

The helicopters were purchased from MD Helicopter Systems, Inc., formerly known as McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems. The Border Patrol — a division of the

Immigration and Naturalization Service
— has bought 11 MD 600Ns and has an option to purchase 34 more.

Before the agency exercises that option, however, the GAO said the Patrol should address safety, handling and availability concerns surrounding the helicopters.


Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. requested the GAO examine complaints about the Border Patrol’s new helicopter fleet.

The GAO’s investigation stemmed from a request by

Rep. Duncan
Hunter, R-Calif.,
chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Procurement.

According to the report, “a major concern of most sector chiefs and their staffs was the significant amount of time in which the MD 600N helicopters were unavailable for use or ‘down.’

“Air Operations records for December 1998 to March 2000 show that the 10 MD 600Ns assigned to Border Patrol field operations were unavailable, on average, 50 percent of the time,” the GAO said.

The eleventh helicopter is also assigned to Air Operations but is used mainly for training by instructor pilots and does not fly sector missions on a regular basis. It has also flown fewer hours than the field helicopters, Border Patrol officials said, but it was unavailable about 25 percent of the time, according to maintenance records.

Downtime included any time helicopters were not operational due to avionics, repair, maintenance, or while waiting for parts.

In comparison, the GAO said, the Patrol’s four Eurocopter “A-Star” aircraft were only down 28 percent of the time during the same period.

Among the problems noted by pilots:

     

  • The aircraft’s seats were too uncomfortable and unpadded.

     

  • There was limited visibility due to narrowed doorframes, creating “awkward positions” for pilots attempting to see objects below or behind them (also a safety problem during take-offs and landings).

     

  • The flight controls are too “heavy” and stiff, making flight “so uncomfortable that it affects [a pilot's] ability to do their work.” Pilots said they could only fly for two hours without a break and complained of pain in knees, back and buttocks. Some pilots fly for more than two hours and up to four hours in some cases.

Also, initially Federal Aviation Administration pilots said the aircraft had a tendency to “yaw” — or turn to one side — without pilot direction during hovering. Though McDonnell Douglas added a “strake” stabilization feature, Border Patrol pilots said the aircraft still has the tendency to drift at lower altitudes and speeds, “common on Border Patrol missions,” the GAO report said.

At higher speeds and altitudes, FAA and Border Patrol pilots “reported that control was difficult,” said the GAO, “particularly when it was windy.”

Worse, the problems were initially identified by Border Patrol procurement test pilots when they formally evaluated the MD 600N, before the agency bought them. The GAO said Army pilots also tested a similar version in consideration for its uses “but rejected it.”

“One reason [for the Army rejection] was due to poor handling characteristics, according to the Test and Evaluation Officer of the Army unit and the Army evaluation report,” the GAO found.

The Army official “said it took a lot of work to get the helicopter to do what you wanted it to do,” said the GAO.

“Pilots from other sectors have not had as many problems, but the GAO report confirms what the California pilots have said,” said Mike Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter, who said once the helicopters are down, they are down for a prolonged time and are difficult to repair.

Essentially, the congressional watchdog agency concluded that the MD 600N is “inferior” to the smaller, older aircraft it is replacing for low-level, slow, surveillance commonly performed by Border Patrol pilots.

The GAO recommended that the agency reconsider its decision to purchase one type of “multipurpose” helicopter.

For its part, McDonnell Douglas officials said they were in the process of making improvements and revisions to the aircraft to address the concerns identified by pilots. However, those changes “do not address all of the concerns surrounding the limited availability, safety or suitability for certain missions,” the GAO said.

Harrison said Hunter wants the helicopters fixed, but if they’re not he wants the Border Patrol to purchase helicopters from another company.

The Border Patrol is “already under contract to purchase 11 more helicopters at 1.3 million a piece, possibly as many as 35-40 helicopters in the next 3 to 4 years,” he said, adding that Hunter planned to schedule a meeting with McDonnell Douglas officials to discuss the problems.

“Before that, he’ll talk to the pilots and the GAO first,” most likely within the next few weeks, Harrison said. “McDonnell Douglas needs to make the necessary changes so that the pilots can patrol and protect the border.”

Boeing, which owns McDonnell Douglas, delivered the first MD 600N Aug. 7, 1998 to the Border Patrol’s San Diego station,

a company news
release
said.

Boeing said Alan Neugebauer, business development manager for Boeing in Mesa, Ariz., said the new MD 600N was selected during a competition that included a comprehensive technical proposal review and a thorough flight evaluation. Neugebauer said the MD 600N would bring “greater reliability” to the Border Patrol’s Air Operations fleet, and would reduce “direct operating costs” while “improving aircraft availability.”

The Border Patrol contracted for 45 aircraft, worth $70.7 million to Boeing. They are intended to replace aging OH-6A helicopters, also built by McDonnell Douglas.

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