HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ASKED what you think about this helicopter or that helicopter, because someone was trying to decide which one to buy? I certainly have. In fact, it happens to me quite a bit.
During the past year, I’ve been involved in at least a dozen conversations about what I would pick if I had to buy a police helicopter right now. The latest conversation was with a new division commander, who by his own admission knows relatively little about flying. His department wanted to start a helicopter unit from the ground up and he was playing a key role in making that happen.
After hearing what his people wanted their helicopter for, I suggested Brand X. (I’m not going to use the names of actual manufacturers here.) I told him it would do everything his agency wanted it to do and his pilots would probably be pleased with it. Of course, he wasn’t going to run out and buy it just on my say-so nor was I expecting him to. In fact, I encouraged him to look at everything from small pistons to twin turbines and let the people in his unit decide for themselves what the best fit for them would be.
Six months later, I got another call from that same captain. He said his agency had put new aircraft on the back burner for a while, but they were back to actively trying to buy something.
When I told him my agency was also considering something new, he said, "Oh! Are you going with Brand X, too?"
"No," I said. "We’re looking at Brand Y now."
Of course, he wanted to know what made me change my mind about Brand X in six short months.
"It has nothing to do with the aircraft," I replied. "It’s all about time vs. politics."
You could design and build a functioning space station in the time it takes most government agencies to fill a requisition for a box of paperclips, let alone get a check for the purchase of $5 million worth of helicopters. This is where the "time vs. politics" thing starts to muddy the waters.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the final authority for purchasing new helicopters may fall upon one elected official or an entire body of them. Add in the fact that most politicians have office terms of anywhere from 2-4 years, and trying to get the right people on board with your aircraft plan becomes a game of musical chairs: How many supporters can you get before the music (i.e., the political term) stops?
Now, enter helicopter manufacturer Brand X, the company I suggested the good captain try and the one whose aircraft I wanted for my own unit.
Its sales have increased so much that the turnaround time for a new aircraft shot from one year to more than three years in what seemed like the blink of an eye. That is a huge problem because if politicians in a small to mid-size jurisdiction are going to get behind something as high profile as a new helicopter, they want it to arrive in enough time to get some political mileage out of it. (Let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t have signed off on it in the first place if they hadn’t.)
Now, crunch all of this together and what you end up with is the need to pitch an expensive idea to a transient group of people who could be a hard sell, especially once they learn the machine you’re so enthusiastic about will take almost a political lifetime to receive.
With that being said — and with that being the case in my county, I might add — it became necessary for me to abandon my requisition for Brand X, with its long delivery time, and consider Brands Y and Z. They could deliver an aircraft soon enough for elected leaders to have their pictures taken in front of it while still in office
This isn’t to say that I would have bought something I didn’t want just because I could get it quicker. In fact, Brand Y, my second choice, had been a contender almost from the start. Having a shorter delivery time than Brand X, however, just about evened them out.
Oh, did I mention that my county dropped the idea of buying new aircraft shortly after that recommendation? Well, they did, so helicopters are back on hold again.
Meanwhile, the helicopter market continues to change, as do aircraft delivery times, designs, and corporate strength.
For me, that means the next time someone asks me which helicopter I’d buy, I’ll have to start from scratch. I’ll see which helicopters and manufacturers look good, then try to predict where they’ll be as the procurement process wears on.
As for the captain who was trying to start a new unit, he’s already updating his information to see if his first choice of helicopter is still his first choice, based on what he wants and how soon he can get it. I suppose time and politics will tell.
Ernie Stephens holds a masters degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He was chief pilot for a major U.S. county police department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.