One of two AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters operated by the police has been grounded after cracks appeared on the main rotor blades, the justice ministry said on Tuesday.
The announcement followed a report in daily Phileleftheros which published a letter from Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides asking for explanation.
Michaelides said the blades cracked after 1,600 hours of flight when the aircraft’s specifications state that they last up to 10,000.
The ministry said cracks had appeared in some of the five blades of both helicopters. Following consultations with the manufacturers, engineers replaced the problematic blades on one aircraft with blades from the other that were in good condition.
The ministry said it has asked the tender commission to approve the procurement of five reconditioned blades to replace the damaged ones at a cost of around €286,000.
According to the commander of the police aviation unit, the blades were not covered by warranty and the company did not bear any responsibility.
In its statement, the ministry said it has asked the attorney-general to look at the matter and advise whether the blades could be replaced according to the guarantees provided by the manufacturer.
The police have also been asked to inform the ministry of the reasons why the blades were not covered by warranty, if that was the case eventually.
It also expects a report from the force regarding the damage to the blades and whether similar incidents have been experienced elsewhere.
The National Guard operates three helicopters of the same type.
The blade problem is the latest episode in the particular helicopters’ checkered history.
In March this year, Attorney-general Costas Clerides ordered a criminal investigation into the aircrafts’ procurement in 2007 and 2008 at a cost of around €76m.
The probe also includes former auditor-general Chrystalla Georghadji, currently the Central Bank Governor, in relation to the submission of information to parliament, which released the funds for the purchase.
Reports suggested Georghadji, despite knowing that the cost of the helicopters was excessive, allegedly chose not to divulge the information to the House Defence Committee.
Andreas Hasapopoulos, a senior audit service official who blew the whistle, said at the time that the state had overpaid for the procurement by at least €14m.
The five helicopters were acquired through two separate processes. The National Guard’s was through direct negotiation with suppliers, which was allowed at the time.
Hasapopoulos said the defence ministry pre-selected six companies and asked for bids despite it being obvious from the start that four did not meet the criteria.
Three were Russian, while the specifications mandated Western or US airworthiness certificates, and one, a Swiss company, was not even a helicopter manufacturer.
Out of the other two, one had the lead because of the criteria that were set, Hasapopoulos added.
He said he included all this in a memo to Georghadji who took part in a House defence committee meeting that discussed the matter.
MPs had same concerns, Hasapopoulos said, but Georghadji sought to allay them instead of confirming them.
One of the reasons mooted was the need for aircraft able to carry out search and rescue operations at a time when Turkey was disputing the Republic’s ability.
But Hasapopoulos said that would have been a political decision and had nothing to do with the audit service’s mandate.
An MP at the time, Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos, told the defence committee that the same helicopters were sold abroad for €8.8m. The bid at the time was €12m for the basic model but it dropped to €11m following negotiations.
The final cost was around €15m each, including some extra equipment added later. A year later, the police paid close to €14m for the basic model.