TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas - Travis County's fleet of StarFlight helicopters looks like new, but with about 700 flights a year they're more than slightly used and apparently about to go up for sale after a vote by Travis County Commissioners Tuesday morning.
Selling the four helicopters is part of a plan to upgrade capabilities and avoid escalating maintenance costs.
"We could keep the fleet, and continue to operate, but there is no room for capacity, no room for extra growth, we can’t carry any more water it won’t do any more than the things that it does, and here's the cost of keep the fleet and that’s one of the analysts the budget office did,” said StarFlight Program Director Casey Ping.
Three options were presented to county commissioners all came with a heavy price tag over a 10 year period.
-Keeping the existing fleet - was estimated to cost $31.6 million.
-reducing the fleet to only two helicopters totaled $21.6 million.
-Buying and operating three new helicopters - over a 10 year period- came in at $24.4 million.
Commissioner Brigid Shea had a case of sticker shock.
"It’s such a big amount to swallow; I guess I’m trying to figure out if there is a way to phase it. It’s like eating an elephant, it’s hard to do all at once,” said Shea.
Selling the older fleet is expected to raise about a third of the total cost for replacement. An agreement with Seton was also pitched to ease the pinch. The hospital group is pledging $10-million over five years to the program. Seton made the offer because it wants to reach deeper into rural Texas and offer patients more hi-tech care.
"We have no growth capacity in our current aircraft, it would be like the first cellphone you bought 12 years ago, and you are comparing that to what’s available to you now,” said StarFlight Director of Aviation Chuck Spangler
To help pay for the extra cost -- the price for being transported on StarFlight went up last month. There is also going to be an effort to get some of the other metro area counties to contribute into the program, that’s because of the fire and rescue coverage StarFlight provides outside of Travis County.
With different type of aircraft in the fleet, like the Huey, and the Eurocopter, StarFlight has had to have different types of stands for maintenance and operation. So the plan is to have one single platform.
The Leonardo AW 169 is the helicopter StarFlight managers want. It holds more crew and more equipment than the Eurocopter 145 flown by StarFlight. The AW 169 also eliminates the use of 100 gallon bambi buckets to fight fires. The Eurocopters have been critical in battling recent wildfires, but the water drops are limited. The AW 169 has an on-board 300 gallon tank.
"Having a fixed tank, we will be able to fill it with ground resources or it shows up with that water allows us to be more flexible,” said AFD Division Chief Palmer Buck.
The new helicopter also eliminates the need for the older Huey which was purchased in 2013. It also has a 300 gallon onboard water tank, but the Huey was refurbished when Travis County bought it and is not as agile as the new helicopter.
County Commissioners are expected to look at the contract for the purchase of 3 aw 169 helicopters in early October.