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Amid safety concerns, Russia set to snag another major helicopter contract

Amid safety concerns, Russia set to snag another major helicopter contract

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the March 9 crash of a U.N.-contracted Russian Mi-8 helicopter during a storm in Eastern Congo that killed all four crew members and prompted internal calls from U.N. aviation officials for new safety features on aircraft.

In the days following the crash of the Russian helicopter, two mid-level U.N. aviation officials advocated the need for UTair (the chopper’s owner) and other contractors to immediately install a safety device known as an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), a digital mapping system that allows pilots flying into a storm to detect and evade large obstacles, like mountains and buildings.

But Ameerah Haq, the undersecretary general in the U.N.’s Department of Field Support, overruled the U.N.’s aviation experts, saying that it needed to conduct "a review of technical and contractual arrangements" before deciding whether the equipment was needed. "This review," she wrote in a confidential communication to the Ukrainian government, "may possibly conclude that EGPWS, or other similar systems, should be installed in all aircraft contracted" for U.N peacekeeping missions, she wrote.

The internal debate over safety has commercial implications for some of the U.N. helicopter suppliers, particularly Ukraine, which has been installing the EPGWS warning systems in some their choppers, and the Russians, who have not.

Late Monday, the U.N. privately read out the latest bids on multimillion contracts for three helicopters for the U.N. mission in Congo.

UTair offered the lowest price, making it the odds-on favorite to win the contract. The Ukrainian entrant, along with two other Russian competitors and air operators from Canada and Nepal, proposed more expensive bids, making it likely they will lose out.

U.N. requirements to accept the lowest bid that meets qualifications means that the only way UTair could lose the bid is if the U.N. determines its helicopters are not in compliance or it a further analysis of the bids determines that somehow the Russian aircraft are more expensive than their competitors. But the fact that the Russian aircraft don’t have the advanced safety systems the U.N. is currently evaluating will not be taken into consideration in the final decision, according to officials familiar with the procurement process.

Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, reacted angrily to the decision, saying the U.N. has "learnt no lesson from the previous tragedy." If any crash happens in future because of the absence of the EGPWS, he said, the U.N. will bear responsibility for the "crime."

The Russia mission to the United Nations has declined to respond to request for comment on the issue. A UTair spokesman, Ilya Khimich, also did not respond to a request for comment on the latest deal. But Khimich has previously defended UTair safety standards, saying the Russian operator uses "meteorological location" and "radio altimeter" instruments "which detect artificial and natural obstacles, as well as the geometric height above the ground surface." He said that the U.N. didn’t require "enhanced proximity warning systems because of [the] total absence of topographic maps of Africa, which are mandatory system software."

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