MUNTINLUPA City Rep. Rodolfo Biazon–at 80–still looked every inch a Marine as he stood ramrod-straight at the Camp Aguinaldo grounds to await the arrival of a flight of UH-1D helicopters that were flying in from Villamor Air Base on Tuesday.
The helicopters were among the 21 combat utility helicopters that were part of the controversial P1.2-billion project, which The Manila Times earlier exposed as allegedly anomalous after a revelation made by Rhodora Alvarez, who claimed she was privy to the deal between the Department of National Defense (DND) and Rice Aircraft Services Inc.
Only seven of the 21 helicopters were delivered after the project was partly terminated a month after The Manila Times published a series of reports on alleged irregularities in the modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philipines (AFP).
Biazon, a Marine soldier who once ruled Camp Aguinaldo as chief of staff of the AFP during the first Aquino administration, had spent countless hours flying in Huey helicopters.
When he spoke during a briefing before an actual demonstration flight with the media got underway, he took note of one detail–the combat helicopters had no guns.
Biazon said if the helicopters were indeed “combat mission” capable, the guns should have been mounted.
No one from among the DND and military officials that included Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin replied to the congressman’s query.
But after Biazon left, the officials told the reporters who pressed them for answers that the guns were removed before the helicopters took off from Villamor Air Base “because it was a public test flight.”
The officials then showed the gun mounts attached to the aircraft.
In his impromptu speech, Biazon said the House of Representatives will include the P1.2-billion helicopter deal in its “sunset review” of the AFP modernization program.
He added that the House Committee on National Defense and Security will look into, among others, the legality and practicality of the acquisition of the helicopters. The hearing is set for July 29.
Gazmin, commanding general of the Presidential Security Group when Biazon was AFP chief, said the DND welcomes the review and investigation even as he pointed out that all the allegations about the helicopters’ acquisition particularly the alleged kickbacks or commission were all lies.
“They are all lies. They are mere allegations of one [person]. She should substantiate her allegations. They are nothing. Did you hear the admission of [Robert] Rice (of Rice Aircraft Services Inc. or RASI) that she was the one asking [for kickbacks]. She is circumventing the issue,” Gazmin told reporters at the sidelines of the flight demonstration.
He was apparently referring to whistleblower Rhodora Alvarez, the principal source of The Manila Times series that uncovered the alleged anomalies behind the acquisition of the helicopters from RASI and Eagle Copters Ltd.
Gazmin, together with DND and Philippine Air Force officials, led the presentation of the seven UH-1D helicopters that was followed by a public test flight. Fourteen reporters, photographers and television cameramen joined the flight from the AFP Grandstand to San Mateo, Rizal, and back.
“We decided to bring the seven helicopters to see them for yourselves and the two UH-1H so you can compare their difference and capability,” he said.
Gazmin added that he himself rode the controversial choppers several times and he “is still alive.”
He noted that the aircraft were not defective as earlier alleged because if they were, they would not be accepted by the AFP’s Technical Inspection Advisory Committee (TIAC).
An Air Force’s presentation said the TIAC ensured that the items delivered are in accordance with specifications stipulated in procurement documents. The committee accepted the items and forwarded the acceptance report to Procurement Center or Contracting Office.
Col. Dino Diño, TIAC chairman, said the seven helicopters underwent proper procedures pursuant to existing rules.
The seven helicopters were accepted by TIAC from August 20 to December 26, 2014 and were gradually turned over to the Air Force from October 23 to February 2015.
Col. Moises Micor, director for operations of the Air Force’s 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing, said that in comparison, UH-1D is much better than the UH-1H based on specifications upgrades and modifications.
“With the noted differences between the two models, we can conclude that the UH-1D is at par in terms of performance, if not much better than the UH-1H,” he added.
The decision to fly select reporters and photographers aboard the UH-ID helicopters was aimed at disproving allegations that the aircraft are not air worthy and mission capable.
The demonstration flights took off from Camp Aguinaldo at 11:07 a.m. and made a short flight to San Mateo, Rizal. The aircraft and their passengers arrived at the military base at 11:46 a.m. safe and sound.
“[The flight demonstration and briefing] aims to correct allegations coming out in the media [that the UH-IDs]are defective and not flyable. We thought it prudent to bring the helicopters here and let the media know about their capabilities and difference from the UH-IHs,” Gazmin said in Filipino.
The Defense chief denied claims that he and other officials were asking for 15 percent commission for the UH-ID project.
“Those are all lies,” he said.
The acquisition of the 21 UH-IDs has been mired in controversy after claims of bidding irregularities and the aircraft being defective.
It was partly terminated last March 25 after suppliers Rice Aircraft Services Inc. and Eagle Copters Ltd. failed to deliver the rest of the aircraft.
“In compliance with Section 88, Rule XXII of the IRR of Republic Act 9184 (Philippine Procurement Law), the contract agreement between the DND/AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and the Joint Venture of Rice Aircraft Services Inc. and Eagle Copters Ltd. for the supply and delivery of 21 UH-I helicopters for the PAF with corresponding contract price of P1,263,000,000 shall be partially terminated for exceeding the 10 percent maximum liquidated damages,” the DND order signed by Gazmin said.
There are 20 UH-IH and seven UH-1Ds in the Air Force inventory as of this time.
“Both aircraft have the top speed of 124 KIAS [knot indicated airspeed]but when you are flying UH-IH model, you can feel the aircraft starting to shake or shiver when you are approaching speeds up to 82 to 90 knots. But in the UH-ID, you can feel no vibration and even if you are cruising at speed of 110 KIAS,” said Major Aristides Galang, 210th Tactical Squadron operations officer and the test pilot involved in the acceptance test of the UH-IDs.
“It [UH-ID] also climbs very fast compared to the UH-IH,” the PAF official pointed out.
Galang, who has 1,900 flying hours to his credit, said during acceptance tests of the aircraft, either the UH-ID performs up to standard, as specified in the PAF checklist, or it will not be accepted for service until.
During so-called “maintenance test flights” (which are done during the pre-acceptance phase), all forms of maneuvers are conducted to ensure that the aircraft has no major discrepancy that could cause it to fail or crash while in PAF service.
These include air and ground handling and various emergency procedures, the pilot said.
On claims that major discrepancies were encountered during initial tests of the aircraft, Galang said this is only natural as all aircraft are prone to wear-and-tear while flying.
He added that the same holds true for all aircraft in every Air Force in the world and dealing with such discrepancies is the job of maintenance crew and officers.
PAF spokesman Col. Enrico Canaya earlier said the “D” designation in the UH-1 means that it was manufactured by Dornier, a German aircraft manufacturer that started construction of the UH-1 from 1967 to 1981. Around 350 units were built by the German company.
Canaya said all seven UH-IDs are deployed to Central Luzon and Manila PAF units.
“The PAF, however, opted to deploy these newly turned over units to Central Luzon and Manila areas for endurance flights, training and other missions to make them accessible to technical representatives and take advantage of warranty claims,” he added.
The PAF spokesman clarified that the UH-1Ds and UH-IHs, still in Philippine service, are similar models but made by different manufacturers.
“Their airframes are old but once they are refurbished… they are reliable to perform missions. The PAF has a wealth of experience operating and maintaining UH-1 helicopters since the 1970s,” he said.
Canaya dismissed reports that UH-1D spare parts are no longer available in the market.
“Their parts are not obsolete and are available in the market just like the parts for the existing fleets of UH-1Hs the PAF is currently maintaining. The UH-1H helicopters are still widely use in other countries,” he said.
Canaya added that the PAF does not accept aircraft with technical issues.
“The PAF only receives and operates units that passed the Technical Inspection And Acceptance Committee,” he pointed out.
The PAF spokesman said the newly arrived UH-IDs are superior to the UH-1Hs as they feature composite main rotor blades that perform better and safer than the latter aircraft.
Rico Quicho, spokesman for Vice President Jejomar Binay, said Senate blue ribbon committee chairman Teofisto Guingona 3rd should not prejudge the helicopter deal.
“Senator Guingona’s committee has once again shown that while it prejudges and destroys the political opposition, it is a safe harbor for administration officials and allies embroiled in reported anomalies,” he added.