Extensive repairs on one helicopter in Santa Barbara County’s Air Support Unit are expected to cost as much as the fleet’s entire maintenance budget for the year.
The county Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department merged last July to operate and maintain the fleet of six helicopters and one Cessna fixed-wing aircraft, in hopes of saving $270,000 in operating costs and cross-training all flight crews and mechanics.
The maintenance budget for all the aircraft was set at $142,000, but repairs on Helicopter 308 alone are estimated at $143,000, according to Sheriff’s Department CFO Doug Martin.
During the helicopter’s annual inspection, maintenance employees make sure everything is within tolerance and working properly. They found “significant” problems that need to be fixed on Copter 308, Martin said.
Among the needed major repairs are replacing the mast that holds the rotors and replacing the wing in the back that helps guide it up and down, he said.
Sheriff Bill Brown said aircraft repair costs can fluctuate significantly year to year, but Copter 308’s issues were far beyond the basic maintenance budget.
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr commented that the board needs a realistic understanding of what maintenance costs will be year to year.
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam said there needs to be a contingency fund, since older, turbine-engine aircraft break and are expensive to repair. He also asked that staff calculate whether to retire aircraft or continue fixing them, since everything has a service life.
The fleet includes four Sheriff’s Department helicopters, a single-engine Cessna 206 and two Fire Department helicopters.
Every helicopter was built between 1965 to 1971, and most were purchased by the county in the 1990s. The 2001 Cessna was acquired through asset forfeiture. Fire helicopters 308 and 309 have the most flight time, with 13,657 and 14,500 hours, respectively, as of February 2012.
With the merger of fire and law enforcement aircraft, the staffing plan was to have 6.2 full-time positions for flight crews and two full-time mechanics.
“Normally, as I tried to explain at the end of the board presentation, an annual inspection is very noneventful,” Martin said. “This particular helicopter had a lot of issues in it that were not anticipated.”
Copter 308 has been out of service since November, and will probably be repaired by early March, he said. Copter 2 also was going through its annual inspection, but was back in service this week.
“Repairs and maintenance are usually done in-house, but we sometimes send them to a mechanic depending on what we think is the severity of the issue,” Martin said.
At any given time, some aircraft are down for maintenance and others are operating.
“We expect under normal circumstances that the maintenance budget is adequate to maintain the fleet,” Martin said.
When budget talks start in spring, he may suggest having a routine maintenance budget and an emergency fund for unexpected repairs.
It’s now six months since the Aviation Support Unit merged from sheriff and fire resources, and serious safety concerns have surfaced.
In October, Noozhawk received a letter from a group that only identified itself as “Concerned Professional Firefighters,” which claimed that fire Copter 308 and Copter 309 hadn’t had the same level of service as the sheriff aircraft since the merger.
The letter also said that the sheriff’s mechanics were refusing to work on the fire helicopters, the maintenance budget was inadequate to service all seven aircrafts and the joint cross-training hadn’t happened.
“The current budget cannot safely operate the (aviation) unit, and the supervisor at aviation has curtailed our training to the point we can no longer perform our jobs as professionals,” the letter stated.
Two high-profile deaths have highlighted issues with Air Support Unit responses to emergencies.
On July 4, an 8-year-old Oxnard boy drowned in the Santa Ynez River. During a response to the incident, sheriff’s personnel allegedly canceled a dispatch for Copter 308 — which is equipped for a water rescue — and instead sent out Copter 2 — which did not have the necessary equipment or staff, the letter stated.
In September, 36-year-old hiker Nicole Peters had a medical emergency on a Montecito trail and died while on the phone with 9-1-1 dispatchers.
Helicopters are supposed to be in flight within 10 minutes of dispatch, but Copter 308 took 40 minutes from the initial call to be recorded en route to the scene, according to dispatch records.
Peters made the call at 12:52 p.m. on Sept. 4 from the Romero Canyon Trail, and appeared to be suffering from dehydration or a heart attack, according to the dispatcher.
While on the phone with 9-1-1, Peters begged for a helicopter and then went silent after 45 minutes of “grunting, screaming and thrashing around,” records show. After a paramedic was dropped to the ground at 2:08 p.m., Peters had died.
Copter 308 initially was dispatched, then determined “unable to respond due to communication failure,” so a helicopter responded from Ventura County.
For unknown reasons, Copter 308 then responded and called off the Ventura copter.
County CEO Chandra Waller, Undersheriff Jim Peterson and Deputy Fire Chief Chris Hahn responded to the letter’s concerns at the time, saying the safety of citizens is paramount.
The letter includes “half-truths,” and the issues of concern are inaccurate or expected transition issues, Waller said.
They intend to cross-train all the crews but “have a long way to go on this,” Peterson said in October.
More recently, and with much ballyhoo, the Air Resources Unit placed a new aircraft into service: Copter 3.
The fully restored, Vietnam-era Huey UH-1 helicopter is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, and able to support all of the unit’s law-enforcement, firefighting and rescue missions.