Air Force helicopters
A Black Hawk as featured in one of the recent news items on Portugal's purchase

Air Force ‘hides age of new firefighting helicopters’

The €42.5 million purchase is for ‘adapted Black Hawk’ – some of which could be 35 years old

Earlier this month, the news was trailed enthusiastically: the Portuguese Air Force was acquiring six medium-lift Sikorski UH-60 Black Hawk military helicopters to integrate into its rural firefighting force. The contract signed with America’s Arista Aviation Services includes training for six pilots and 21 mechanics, as well as technical maintenance until 2026. The first two aircraft will be delivered early 2023. Black Hawks can transport 12 firefighters and equipment, and up to 2,850 litres of water… and the purchase is covered 81% by the EU’s ‘bazooka’ (plan for resilience and recovery).

What wasn’t explained is that these Black Hawks will have already had a lifetime of use… in a text headlined: “Air Force hides age of ‘new’ helis, which could be 35 years old”, Expresso explains that the specifications of the tender allow for the purchase of helicopters up to 35 years old.

Yet again, ‘certain military sources’ are warning of the risk of purchasing “junk” – or more precisely ‘more junk’. (The link refers to the six clapped out Kamov helicopters brought in a blast of political fanfare in 2006 which were, in the end, an unmitigated, and hugely expensive, disaster).

For now, says the paper, the Air Force “is not revealing the real age of the aircraft acquired through the contract celebrated on August 12.

“Questioned by Expresso, a spokesperson for the Air Force only responded – without revealing the true age of the Black Hawk – that “the means acquired will have an age equal or inferior to that defined in the specifications”.

As the paper considers, this means the helis could indeed be 35 years old.

Back-track to February this year, and Expresso recalls that the Air Force had justified the terms of the specifications on the basis that light helicopters currently used in rural firefighting “have an average age of 16 years”, and the medium (sized) helicopters “have an average age of 44 years”.

“When they heard the terms of the tender, military sources heard by Expresso were divided into those who think the Air Force is buying material that is old,  and those who consider that the bodywork of the chopper may be old, but the helicopter itself may have been modernised”.

For now, nothing appears to be clearer than that.

The first two helicopters under the terms of this purchase should be ready to fly, with pilots fully trained in how to use them, by the start of the wildfire season in July.

Meantime, another tender, in the sum of €11.5 million, for four light helicopters, also to fight rural fires, saw no companies showing interest. The tender has since lapsed. Its terms will now be ‘re-evaluated’ and possibly revised at a later date.

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