MTV keen on buying a helicopter for news operations
Regional heli-service centre in Sri Lanka?
By Duruthu Edirimuni
A proposal by the Maharaja Group to set up a helicopter-servicing centre for the South Asian region is currently being reviewed by the National Security Council (NSC) after it was earlier shot down by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) citing security reasons.

Top sources in the Ministry of Aviation said last week that Defence Secretary, Asoka Jayawardene had referred the matter to the NSC to reassess the possibility of granting approval for the 'heli-servicing centre,' which will service a particular brand of helicopters.

Mano Wikramanayake, Group Director, Maharaja (Pvt) Ltd., said MTV, the company's TV media arm while planning to buy a helicopter from an American manufacturer for its television operations had then seen a commercial viability in setting up a service centre in the SAARC region.

Wikramanayake declined to comment on the identity of the manufacturer but aviation sources say it is the Robinson Helicopter Company of Torrance, California, which has produced over 5,400 helicopters and is currently the world's leading producer of civil helicopters.

"The company was willing to back us up for a servicing centre for the brand that it was marketing and we saw an opportunity to cater to the region," Wikramanayake said, adding that the manufacturer had also felt that Sri Lanka is a good location for the service centre. "This was because we are strategically located."

He said the manufacturer was also having long term plans to enter the South Asian market through this operation. Aviation sources said the Maharaja Group was planning to buy the R44 Newscopter, which is specifically designed for high-quality live television broadcasting by Robinson Helicopters. Apart from the R44 Newscopter, the company manufactures two more types, the R44 Clipper, which has fixed or pop-out utility floats for over-water operations and the R44 Police Helicopter, equipped for airborne law enforcement.

The four-seat R44, introduced in 1993 has been the world's top-selling helicopter for the past four years. With a fast 130 miles per hour cruise speed and hydraulic controls, it has the same performance and handling characteristics that expensive turbine helicopters have, but at one-third the cost.

Robinson Helicopter Company presently has a global network of 274 service centres in 50 countries and has sold about 1,000 of its four-seat R44 helicopters, worldwide.

Aviation authorities said the Maharajah Group proposal, endorsed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), was turned down by the SLAF early this year. SLAF had cited security concerns in the country, albeit the ongoing peace process and had communicated it to NSC. "The NSC instructed us to hold on to the proposal because they felt it is not an appropriate time for such a venture, given the present security situation in the country," Wikramanayake said.

Aviation authorities said it was a very good proposal and a high-quality investment to the country. They were not sure about the amount of investment, but said that since Robinson Helicopter Company sells more helicopters than all other North American rotorcraft manufacturers combined, it was sure to be a multi million-dollar deal.

But the sources said the foreign investment was unlikely to materialise due to delays in its approval. "It will take some time for NSC to complete the second assessment, by which time it may be too late, because Robinson would have moved on," an official said.

Analysts said this would be a wrong signal to foreign investors because such a venture would have prompted many more lucrative investments in the market. Wikramanayake also said that presently the proposal has taken a back seat in the company's line of business.

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