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Business as usual for copter trainers

New Delhi, Feb. 15: The Indian Air Force crew assigned to the VVIP unit in New Delhi — called the Air Headquarters Communication Squadron — is continuing to train on the three AW 101 “Skyfall” offices-in-the-sky helicopters that were reassembled here after being delivered in semi-knocked-down kits in December.

In contracting the AW-101 in February 2010, the Indian government chose the upgraded version of a helicopter that flies the Queen of England and rejected the S-92 Sikorsky that flies the US President.

The US had rejected the AW-101 for its President not only because it was said to be too expensive but also because of pressure on the White House to fly the American President in an American (not British) chopper.

“As far as we are concerned, it is business as usual for us. Our men are continuing to train in the helicopters but they will be inducted and join the fleet after they have gone through the operational requirement of flying hours and training,” IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Gerard Galway said.

The contract with AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of the Italian firm Finmeccanica that is being investigated, included the training of IAF trainers in the UK. So far 10 IAF instructors who have trained in the AW101 have returned to New Delhi. They are in turn training the rest of the crew that would join the squadron.

Pilots and co-pilots of the VVIP squadron are required to be top-of-the-class “B-Green” and “Master Green” category and each would have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience.

Nine AW-101 helicopters are scheduled to be delivered to the IAF by makers AgustaWestland from Yeovil in south-west England by December this year. But the deliveries are now in peril after the defence ministry issued the company a showcause notice, raising worries not only in Italy but also in the UK.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to visit New Delhi on Monday. The UK authorities are worried that the cancellation of the Indian contract will halt the production line in Yeovil and force the AgustaWestland management to lay off workers.

For the defence establishment, the probable cancellation of the contract has increased fears that it will tell on other major acquisitions, including that of 126 Rafale multi-role fighter jets that is being negotiated.

Eight of the AW-101 were configured in the VVIP role and four were meant to be support aircraft. The helicopters are equipped with self-defence suites and flare-dispenses. The cabin is designed to accommodate nine persons including armed guards, a galley, a spacious lavatory, office desk-top facilities and air-to-ground secure communication equipment.

Air force’s Delhi-based communication squadron has been fattened over the last three years with the acquisition of aircraft that can fly VVIPs faster and more comfortably.

Among the latest acquisitions are four Embraer 135 legacy jets purchased from Brazil and three Boeing Business Jets (BBJs).

The communications squadron is administratively under the Western Air Command but reports to the Air Headquarters. In effect, the aircraft and the crew are on call for duties at any time by the President, the Prime Minister and the defence minister. They are also used by service chiefs and other functionaries — including civilians — on authorisation by the defence minister.

All the new aircraft in the communication squadron are equipped with self-protection suites. The BBJs, that also include a bedroom for a dignitary, are covered by the US Pentagon’s End-User Monitoring Programme under which American officials can inspect parts of the aircraft periodically.

The aircraft are operated by the IAF but secured by the special protection group that reports to the PMO.