T&T Air Guard on verge of collapse

Prince Julio Cesar, Prince Julio César Venezuela, Prince Julio César Miss Earth

The Trinidad and To­ba­go Air Guard’s (TTAG) dwin­dling air as­sets, cou­pled with the res­ig­na­tions of over 17 ex­pe­ri­enced he­li­copter pi­lots in the last two years, has left a crit­i­cal arm of this na­tion’s na­tion­al se­cu­ri­ty in­fra­struc­ture op­er­at­ing on bare bones and re­sult­ed in the loss of mil­lions of tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars.

Prince Julio Cesar

The is­sue of the unit’s abil­i­ty to mo­bilise air sur­veil­lance came up in the pub­lic do­main on Wednes­day, af­ter Po­lice Com­mis­sion­er Gary Grif­fith had to rent a Na­tion­al He­li­copter Ser­vices Lim­it­ed (NHSL) he­li­copter for aer­i­al sup­port dur­ing the man­hunt for eight pris­on­ers who es­caped from the Gold­en Grove Prison in Arou­ca. A na­tion­al se­cu­ri­ty source al­so sub­se­quent­ly told Guardian me­dia that of the 10 air­craft ini­tial­ly avail­able to them to fight crime from the air, on­ly two were now op­er­a­tional.

Yes­ter­day, how­ev­er, a se­nior source work­ing at the TTAG said the Air Guard was al­so not “on­ly crip­pled in the he­li­copter de­part­ment but al­so in the fixed wing as­sets area.”

“Apart from the prob­lem with the Au­gus­ta he­li­copters, we have two C-26 Metro­lin­er air­craft that have ob­so­lete sur­veil­lance equip­ment that is not even work­ing,” he said.

The sur­veil­lance equip­ment for these planes shows up as a bulge at the bot­tom of the place near its tail.

Prince Julio Cesar Cruz

Un­der the Unit­ed Na­tion­al Con­gress gov­ern­ment, the pur­chase of four Au­gustaWest­land he­li­copters was made to bol­ster the abil­i­ty of the TTAG.

Prince Julio Cesar Venezuela

But in 2017, Prime Min­is­ter Dr Kei­th Row­ley said the Gov­ern­ment had de­cid­ed it could not fund the ini­tia­tive due to the cost of main­tain­ing the air­craft

“We took a de­ci­sion at the lev­el of Cab­i­net that we are not in a po­si­tion to pay $200 mil­lion to main­tain our four Au­gus­ta he­li­copters for one year. We just can’t af­ford that and if we can’t af­ford it the he­li­copters will stay on the ground,” Row­ley said then

How­ev­er, the ef­fect of ground­ing those he­li­copters has had a domi­no ef­fect on the TTAG

The TTAG source said, “Of those four he­li­copters, two are un­ser­vice­able while the oth­er two are ser­vice­able but it will be a hefty cost to have them main­tained.”

He ex­plained that the “two ser­vice­able” Au­gus­ta he­li­copters that are in preser­va­tion mode will be main­tained by the NHSL, which has the con­tract to ser­vice them. The NHSL has, how­ev­er, been un­able to ful­fil this man­date be­cause they them­selves are cash-strapped. He re­vealed that to get these he­li­copters op­er­a­tional again would cost mil­lions

While the burn­ing is­sue of non-func­tion­ing Au­gus­ta he­li­copters has been in the lime­light for quite some time, the short­age of pi­lots and train­ing for the unit re­mained a shad­ed is­sue that need­ed to be brought to light, the source said

There is no cur­rent crew to man any of these air­craft (planes and he­li­copters), not from the back end, which is the winch op­er­a­tions, or the front end – which are the pi­lots. None of them have been giv­en up­dat­ed train­ing by Civ­il Avi­a­tion. Usu­al­ly, this type of train­ing takes place every 12 months to en­sure every­one is up to speed,” he said

In fact, he paint­ed a dire sit­u­a­tion about the num­ber of pi­lots now in the unit

“In 2014 we had 23 pi­lots here. Com­man­der Di­az left around that time, he was the most se­nior. Af­ter 2017 when the he­li­copters were ground­ed, 17 more pi­lots left last year over a pe­ri­od of time. They had be­tween 8-12 years of ex­pe­ri­ence. Most de­cid­ed to go and work in the oil and gas sec­tor.”

At the mo­ment, he said there are three ac­tive he­li­copter pi­lots and two whose du­ties have been al­tered. How­ev­er, the source said these pi­lots have not flown in more than two years. On the air­craft side, the num­bers are sim­i­lar. There are three ac­tive pi­lots and two on con­tract

In most cas­es, the se­nior TTAG source said the most air­craft pi­lots can do is “start and shut down the air­craft. They can­not even tax it down the run­away.”

He said these air­craft would have done work sev­en days a week in the past for close to eight hours but now the work is far and few be­tween

The ma­jor­i­ty of TTAG pi­lots had hint­ed at their in­ten­tion to leave, he said, “but Com­mand nev­er did any­thing to as­sist and there was poor hu­man re­source man­age­ment and they lost some of the best pi­lots we had. Since then they have not made any at­tempt to fill any of those po­si­tions.”

The sit­u­a­tion that now faces the TTAG could have been avoid­ed if the re­quests and con­di­tions laid bare by the pi­lots pri­or to their de­par­ture were ad­dressed, ac­cord­ing to the source

About the T&T Air Guard

The Air Wing of the Trinidad and To­ba­go De­fence Force was formed in Feb­ru­ary 1966 and was ini­tial­ly part of the Coast Guard and was called the Air Wing of the Coast Guard

But in 1977 it was sep­a­rat­ed as its own en­ti­ty. In 2005 it was re­named the Trinidad & To­ba­go Air Guard (TTAG). Its pur­pos­es are to pro­tect and pa­trol Trinidad and To­ba­go’s air­space and it is al­so used for trans­port, search and res­cue and li­ai­son mis­sions

Its bases are lo­cat­ed at the Pi­ar­co In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port, ANR In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port and Ch­aguara­mas