Santa Barbara County will gain a new weapon for fighting fires and conducting rescues with the acquisition of a gently used helicopter that represents a big step toward modernizing the Air Support Unit fleet of Vietnam War-era aircraft.
The Board of Supervisors recently agreed to allow the purchase of a Blackhawk helicopter while waiving the formal bidding process.
“To give you an idea how young this aircraft is, all of our current aircraft are older than, I wouldn’t say older than myself but close to,” interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer said.
Most of the aircraft in the county’s fleet date back to the 1960s and early 1970s, he added.
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“This aircraft’s very young and it’s got a low amount of flight hours on it,” he added.
While the new helicopter had unanimous approval, patience will be needed to await its arrival, which could take at least a year.
The Sikorsky HH-60L Blackhawk was manufactured in 2002 and has 3,196 flight hours. The twin-engine craft has served the California National Guard as a rescue air ambulance but would be converted to a Firehawk for its new role.
A state program will make the aircraft available to Santa Barbara County for a reduced price, an avenue that allowed Ventura County to acquire three Blackhawks. Cal Fire also is replacing its Huey fleet with Blackhawks.
Dyer, a former fire chief who retired before returning to fill the top job temporarily, recalled learning about the Blackhawk capabilities about eight years ago.
“I never thought we would have the capability to bring one of these helicopters to this county,” Dyer said. “I think as Supervisor (Steve) Lavagnino said, it is a game-changer for the future.”
Among modifications to prep the craft for its Firehawk role, a 1,000-gallon tank will be installed. By comparison, Hueys carry 300 to 360 gallons.
“So three times the amount of water in one drop,” Dyer said of the new helicopter.
The new aircraft flies at 218 mph and carries 360 gallons of fuel compared with 138 mph and 200 gallons for the Huey. The Blackhawks have an excellent safety record and have served the military for several decades, he added.
With the addition of the Firehawk, Copter 308, a UH-1 helicopter from 1967 with 14,000 flight hours, will land in semi-retirement to reduce its annual number of hours.
The relatively new helicopter will cost $1.7 million to purchase, significantly lower than the $20 million estimate for a brand-new Blackhawk. The county also will spend money to prep the aircraft for its new role in Santa Barbara County, pushing the total cost to $4.7 million. Sending pilots for flight training will add up to $109,422 while mechanics training will add another $68,322 to the total cost.
The new capability comes with a cost. Annual operating expenses for the new aircraft will be double Copter 308, county officials said.
While the older aircraft is smaller, its age has become problematic because of the difficulty in finding Huey mechanics and parts, Dyer said.
The larger size of the Blackhawk would allow the aircraft to carry more people.
“We could have really used an aircraft like this during the recent floods,” Dyer said.
In addition to rescues, the aircraft could be used to transport law enforcement personnel, he added.
“I have a really personal interest in this because I was evacuated with the Windmill Fire about a quarter-mile from my home a few months ago, and the only reason I think our home didn’t burn down was because of the aircraft that were there within just minutes,” Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said, noting the increased capability of the Firehawk.
“It seems to me we’re turning a corner in our ability to fight fires with aircraft,” she added, “and that’s really significant.”