By S.L. Fuller | September 13, 2017
Texas’ Travis County Commissioner’s Court unanimously approved Tuesday the replacement of three Eurocopter EC145s and the sale of one Bell Helicopter UH-1 Huey. For about $35 million, the county’s Star Flight program would downsize its fleet from four to three aircraft, but the three replacement aircraft would be larger, more modern and more capable, according to Josh Davies, county executive for emergency services. A contract has not yet been approved, but could be next month.
“Our partners are looking for longer flight distances and greater capability in the transport of individuals, patients. And our fire suppression ability is significantly limited in the EC145,” Davies said. “Replacement aircraft would almost double the water-dropping capability and the ability to move firefighters within the aircraft into the environment, should they need to be transported to the scene to do hand crew operations on the ground. Maintenance costs are a big concern. As the fleet ages, it gets more to maintain the fleet, both on a scheduled and unscheduled basis. As a matter of fact, we did have to access some extra funding at the end of this fiscal year for unexpected costs to the current fleet.”
Star Flight does have an aircraft in mind, which Davies presented to the commissioners. Although he did not name the aircraft or OEM during his presentation, local news outlets have reported the aircraft as being a Leonardo AW169. The county is looking to increase revenue gained from responding to medical emergencies, and says a bigger, newer, more capable aircraft is a way to appeal to partners and get more calls for more missions.
“Our approach is that if we have aircraft that are more robust and can travel further, we can attract our partner counties by asking for exclusivities by being able to transport their 911 and EMS patients as a partial contribution to supporting, and offsetting, the cost of Travis County and other counties as we are able to participate there,” Davies said, “always keeping our county first.”
Some commissioners were hesitant at the sizable monetary commitment. But a $10 million donation — paid over five years — from Seton Family of Hospitals, which serves the Austin area in Central Texas, would help ease the financial undertaking. News reports said Seton has interests in furthering its reach to rural parts of its jurisdiction, which would be possible with new AW169s. The replacement costs would also be mitigated by the sale of the helicopters — the commissioners approved the brokered sale of the Huey. County funds would also need to be restructured, and it was projected that debt financing would need to be considered. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty also emphasized how important it would be to keep track of revenues and be “vigilant about collections.”
The FAA certificated the AW169 in February, some 19 months after the Italian manufacturer received EASA certification. It is a light intermediate, twin-engine helicopter. New technology features have been incorporated in the rotor system, engines, avionics, transmission, and electric power generation and distribution systems. As family members, the Leonardo AW139, AW189 and AW169 share common flight characteristics, safety features, cockpit layout, design philosophy, and maintenance and training concepts.