PhillyDeals: Philadelphia police look into a third helicopter

Posted: August 29, 2013

Philadelphia is looking to boost its municipal air force. The city police department collected bids last week to expand its aviation unit beyond the two Bell 206s now in service.

Supplier Bell Aviation, part of Textron Inc., has been building updated 206s for military and civilian use at its plant in Canada since the 1960s.

But at least one local rival wants to sell the cops' aviation division a third machine - citing, in part, its home-airfield advantage.

AgustaWestland, owned by Italy's Finmeccanica, hopes its new-model single-engine AW119Kx helicopter, built at its Northeast Philadelphia Airport assembly facility - a short hop from the police air base - will win the bidding war on price, features like a camera that senses heat, and the promise of offering maintenance "right here in Philadelphia," as Bob Brant, the company's sales and marketing chief, said in a statement.

AgustaWestland also says its local plant employs more than 560 workers, which makes it one of the largest (and most sophisticated) manufacturing operations still in the city.

That's a number sure to get the attention of our elected officials, who like to demand city contracts be filled, not necessarily by the most efficient suppliers, but by city residents.

At a time when Philadephia police are winning attention for expanding foot patrols, why do we need the expense of buying, maintaining, and staffing an extra aircraft?

City police spokeswoman Christine O'Brien answered only in very general terms: A third helicopter would "enhance our ability to protect and serve the citizens of our great city," she told me.

O'Brien acknowledged that "there is no data available regarding the arrests that are made with the assistance of the helicopters." She declined to provide cost estimates, citing fears that could "influence or interfere with the bidding/procurement process." Bids were due last Friday.

She did say the chopper would be funded "through both state and federal grants." That means they're not exactly firing more teachers to buy another helicopter. This does make a statement about state and federal subsidy priorities, though.

AgustaWestland won't say what it charges for helicopters. Industry databases price its previous model, the AW119Ke, at about $3.6 million. That model has been purchased for police duty in Arizona, among other places.

The new model AgustaWestland wants to sell to Philadelphia has "a more sophisticated and advanced cockpit," according to Lauren Slepian, company spokeswoman. So you might expect it costs more.

Boeing, which makes helicopters for the U.S. and foreign goverments at its Ridley Park plant, including the updated Chinook with a new cargo handling system that Boeing plans to demonstrate to Canadian officials at its Middletown, Del., testing facility Wednesday, does not bid for small jobs like Philadelphia's.

"That's commercial. We're military," spokesman Thomas Marinucci reminded me.

Bell did not return calls seeking comment on how hard it will try to sell Philadelphia another helicopter and take on the home team.


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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