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Defective flight navigation displays grounding Md. state police helicopters

A Maryland State Police medevac helicopter is used to transport a patient to Western Maryland Regional Medical Center on Nov. 20, 2012, after a single-vehicle wreck on U.S. Route 50. (AP Photo/Cumberland Times-News, Steven Bittner)

ANNAPOLIS — Officials with the Maryland State Police say three medical helicopters in its fleet were grounded recently as the result of defective flight navigation displays.

The agency Wednesday sought approval for two contracts totaling $230,000 to repair two aircraft affected by the faulty units in August. But upgrading 20 more displays could take until the end of 2023; there are four displays per helicopter.

“We plan on having at least 12 of them done by the end of this calendar year and the remainder of them done by next calendar year,” said Toby Bernard of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command.

Among other uses, the helicopters are used during emergencies to rush seriously injured or ill people to medical facilities.

Bernard described the failure as a “known issue” involving a microchip that controls power to the aviation display unit.

“There are four of these installed in each helicopter,” said Bernard. “It’s not so much of a single display unit as it is a primary flight display that is what the pilots use for their navigation, just like the old steam gauges in the old airplanes where they would tap and fix the altimeter and so on and so forth. That is all embedded into this display unit.”

In each helicopter, the pilot and copilot have two screens. When the chip fails, the screen goes black. The helicopters are safe to fly with three of the screens working but must be grounded if two or more fail.

That’s just what happened last month in Cumberland when one of the helicopters was preparing to fly to an emergency call. One of the displays failed and officials grounded the aircraft.

A second helicopter at the Maryland State Police Aviation Command was also grounded last month when one of the displays failed during a routine daily inspection.

Officials told the three-member Board of Public Works Wednesday of a third affected helicopter but did not provide details.

The board unanimously voted to approve the two emergency contracts.

Comptroller Peter Franchot worried the agency was playing “Russian roulette” with helicopters whose screens have not yet been upgraded.

“This is like, very troubling because obviously we’re dealing with lifesaving technologies here with our elite state police and their helicopter fast responders,” said Franchot.

Helicopter displays are now being replaced as each one is taken out of service for routine maintenance after 300 hours of flight. During that  process, the entire aircraft is disassembled, inspected and reassembled before being returned to duty. The process takes about 30 days. Displays that are being repaired are sent out at the time for new chips.

“There are no new units available  for us to purchase out on the market. This is a one-on-one replacement,” said Maj. Michael Tagliaferri, commander of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command. “So, once the unit fails we have to pull the core out and send it in to be repaired. We can’t even buy an additional unit to put on the shelf on the market. There are just no units available based on the lack of supply.”

Bernard added that even if displays were available commercially, they’d be too expensive to keep on hand. 

“The price tag on one of those units, when they were available back in 2017 was $325,000 per unit,” he said. Even if they were available, they would probably be in the upper $300,000 to have a spare unit just to sit on the shelf.”

The helicopters, AW139 models, were purchased from Philadelphia-based Agusta Aerospace in 2010. The company was the sole bidder.

The $72 million contract included six helicopters with the option to purchase six more at the same price adjusted for inflation.

The new fleet was meant to replace an aging Dauphin fleet. One of those aircraft was involved in a crash near Andrews Air Base. Four people died in that crash that was attributed to the error of the lone pilot.

The newer models are designed to be operated by a pilot and co-pilot.

Then-Gov. Martin O’Malley and others said that the contract saved Maryland taxpayers $1.6 million compared to a similar contract entered into by New Jersey, which at the time operated a comparable helicopter fleet.

But Franchot raised concerns at the time about the lone bidder and helicopter specifications required by the state that drove other companies away.

There was also testimony that the flight displays in the vehicles were defective.

“I questioned why have a single big award to a company like Augusta because I questioned whether it was a good deal for Maryland taxpayers from a procurement standpoint but also because there were all sorts of concerns raised about instrumentation failures and other technical problems,” said Franchot.

Bernard acknowledged the problems, saying there had been a “rash of (display failures) after installation. It ranged anywhere from six months to a year and a half. We had about 30-40 of these fail.”

Bernard said the problems resulted in a settlement with the company to repair 20 at no cost to the state and some credits for future work. He called the settlement very fair.