Telegraph - today..... £260m SAS helicopters can't fly with a cloud in the sky By Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent (Filed: 07/04/2004) Eight special forces helicopters delivered to the Ministry of Defence in 2001 at a cost of nearly £260 million have not been used in Afghanistan or Iraq because they cannot fly if it is cloudy. The first SAS team to enter Afghanistan was delayed by six days because of the problems with the Chinooks, which are allowed to fly above 500ft only in clear skies. The problems, disclosed today in a National Audit Office report, were the result of "one of the most incompetent procurements of all time", Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Commons public accounts committee said yesterday. "Eight brand new Chinook HC3s costing £259 million were delivered in 2001 but will be sitting on the ground until 2007," he said. "Because of a massively botched job, they cannot be flown when there is a cloud in the sky. The MoD might as well have bought eight turkeys." In what Mr Leigh described as "an atrocious oversight", the ministry had decided to cut costs by refusing to pay for a fully digital cockpit. The result was a compromise that did not match British defence safety standards. The 500ft restriction means that the helicopters "cannot be used other than for limited flight trials", the report says. It will take £127 million more to bring them up to British standards and enable them to carry out the tasks for which they are needed. The helicopters were ordered from Boeing in 1995. They were tailored to the needs of the SAS and Special Boat Service, with satellite communications technology, extra fuel tanks and in-flight refuelling probes for long flights. At the start of the war in Afghanistan, when there was no moon - in theory the best conditions for a special forces insertion - the SAS could not move because its Chinook pilots relied on light-enhancing night vision goggles. As a result, the troops were unable to fly into Afghanistan until six days after their American counterparts. The report is also critical of the ministry for the failure to provide enough helicopters to carry troops into action. It says: "There is an overall deficit of 38 per cent in helicopter lift. There is also an 87 per cent shortfall in ship-optimised helicopter lift." The criticism coincides with proposals from MoD working groups to axe all RAF Puma and all Royal Navy Sea King helicopters as part of a drive to save £1.2 billion from this year's defence budget. But the Merlin helicopters that would take over responsibility for airlifting troops into operations are "restricted to essential flying" because of a suspected tail rotor fault. The report recommends that the Royal Navy and the RAF follow the Army Air Corps in using senior NCOs to fly aircraft rather than confining the role to commissioned officers.