Replacement of HH-65 Helicopter Engine
GAO-04-595: Published: Mar 24, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 24, 2004.
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Over the last several years, the Coast Guard has experienced what it considers to be serious reliability and safety problems with its workhorse HH-65 helicopter used for key missions, such as search and rescue, migrant and drug interdiction, and homeland security. Annually, the HH-65 contributes to saving 375 lives and assists on 2,065 drug interdiction cases, according to the Coast Guard. An increasing trend in the number and seriousness of safety-related HH-65 incidents in recent months, highlighted by some the Coast Guard deemed to be serious life-threatening incidents, prompted a Coast Guard decision in January 2004 to replace the existing engine and the associated engine control system in this helicopter with a different engine, which it believes will improve safety and reliability and substantially reduce incidents. In light of the Coast Guard's decision to replace the existing engine, and as part of our already ongoing work on the safety and reliability of the HH-65 helicopter, we determined (1) whether the Coast Guard's decision to replace the existing HH-65 helicopter engine was fact- and risk-based; (2) the management and efficiency implications, if any, of the Coast Guard's approach for addressing the safety and reliability issues with the existing HH-65 engine and acquiring the replacement engine; and (3) the extent to which the replacement decision aligns with the Coast Guard's long-term helicopter needs under its Deepwater program.
The Coast Guard made a decision that was both fact- and risk-based for replacing the engine on the HH-65 helicopter. Recently, the number of reported in-flight power losses and incidents has grown dramatically. Further, our interviews with pilots and our review of incident reports disclosed widespread Coast Guard concerns with the safety risks of flying the HH-65 helicopter because of the lack of reliability of its engine and engine control system. The Coast Guard's determination of the need for immediate engine and engine control system replacement was also based on the belief that improvements being made to the existing engine by the manufacturer and the Coast Guard were not working fast enough. Similarly, HH-65 helicopter upgrades under the Coast Guard's Deepwater program are not scheduled to begin until fiscal year 2006, and during the interim period, the Coast Guard did not want to further jeopardize the safety of its pilots and crew or those who depend on the Coast Guard during search and rescue operations. The Coast Guard is using a two-track approach for dealing with safety and reliability problems with the HH-65 in the short term, and this approach has a number of notable management and efficiency implications. With regard to the first track, which involves installing a modified version of the existing engine, the Coast Guard has already bought 61 modified engines and plans to purchase 38 more for $4 million before testing is completed on any of the modified engines. The second track of the Coast Guard's approach, which is to acquire a replacement engine, involves using a contractor to select and acquire the engine, rather than the Coast Guard managing the effort itself. Whether the requirements for the replacement engine will be aligned with Deepwater requirements for this helicopter is unclear because the requirements for all Deepwater aircraft and vessels are still under review in light of the Coast Guard's expanded homeland security responsibilities. If the two are not aligned, there are significant implications and risks related to the amount of money spent on engine replacements and the amount of time needed for replacement.