Firefighting helicopters at the disposal of authorities are substandard and may even not be airworthy, legislators heard on Thursday.
The matter of the choppers was discussed in parliament, where auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides effectively said the Department of Forests had bungled the tender procedure.
For the tender put out back in March 2022, inviting companies to submit offers to lease helicopters to the Department of Forests, the initial cost estimate ran at €142,000 a month.
This compared to €133,000 per month in the previous contract that had expired.
Later, during the negotiating phase in the tender, the cost was revised to €350,000 – and by the time the lease contract was awarded the actual cost came to €399,000.
Michaelides told MPs that only two bidders remained in the tender competition, and that the value at which the contract was awarded was 14 per cent higher than the revised cost estimate.
Defending its handling of the affair, the Department of Forests told the auditor-general that they had simply got it wrong with their initial cost estimate for leasing firefighting helicopters – they had underestimated actual market prices at the time.
Michaelides came back, pointing out that had the initial cost estimate been higher, perhaps more companies would have come forward. That’s because most companies leasing helicopters are not interested in contracts of a small monetary value.
And according to the auditor-general, beyond the financial aspect, the winning bid also had technical shortcomings – the helicopters leased lacked water-dropping sensors, or Blue Sky satellite tracking technology, or a system alerting of potential impacts on cables.
It got even more bizarre, when in August of 2022 the receiving committee deemed these issues as “minor deviations” from the tender specifications and gave the nod to the helicopters’ delivery.
Michaelides also referred to an incident report prepared by a member of the police force. The officer in question had declined to sign off on the choppers, citing the absence of key certificates.
The officer, sergeant Marios Ioannou, told MPs that the police asked – but never got – to see an insurance certificate, an operator’s certificate, a logbook for maintenance and flight hours, and an air operator certificate.
Whereas an airworthiness certificate was provided, the document was of “unknown origin,” the sergeant said.
Parliamentarians also heard from ex-helicopter pilot Yiannis Tsivitanides, summoned to the House audit committee as an expert.
Tsivitanides opined that, assuming the prior information was accurate, the choppers were unfit to fly.
“If these helicopters ever take off again, we could have a new Helios on our hands,” he remarked, alluding to the August 2005 crash of a Helios Airways jet in Greece.