As the AgustaWestland kickbacks scandal unfolds in an Italian court,the helicopters meant to ferry Indian VVIPs on official tours have been reduced to flying short local sorties from the capital. Three of the 12 choppers ordered have already been delivered to the Indian Air Force.
The VVIPs for whom the choppers were meant the President,Prime Minister and senior Cabinet ministers currently use the IAFs fleet of refurbished Mi-8s and Mi-17s.
Sources said that while the new VVIP choppers have not been engaged in regular transportation duties,they are being flown for short durations on regular intervals to keep them airworthy. The government has also released extra funds to secure a spares package.
It is learnt that after the controversy erupted with the naming of former Air Chief S P Tyagi in February this year in an Italian investigation,a call had to be taken by the Defence Ministry to formally receive a spares package that would have kept the fleet of three delivered choppers airworthy.
Sources said that after the CBI was asked to probe the matter,the Defence Ministry released funds worth over 25 million euros to receive the spares package. The decision,officials said,was taken as the spares had already reached Indian shores and were awaiting customs clearance. The call to release additional funds was taken keeping in mind that the three delivered choppers would be rendered unserviceable.
Other than this,all payments to AgustaWestland have been stalled since February with the Defence Ministry asserting that a decision on the future of the contract would be taken on the basis of the CBI investigation into the case. The CBI case was lodged more than a year after Italian investigators alleged that bribes worth 51 million euros were paid to swing the contract in favour of AgustaWestland.
IAF officials confirmed that the three delivered choppers are operational and are being used to train the air crew as no contrary instructions have been received from the government. The choppers are being used for local flying to keep them airworthy. If a machine stays on the ground beyond a specified period,it involves a lot of technical effort to get it flying again, an official said,adding that the machines are being used to give adequate number of flying hours to the specially trained pilots who are part of the Palam-based VVIP squadron.
The pilots are being given training and flying hours to enable them to operate the fleet in case the government takes a decision to continue with the chopper programme, the official said,denying that the fleet was being used to transport senior IAF officials.