The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has secured authorization to proceed with its purchase of a new helicopter to replace its current 21-year-old aircraft, known as Henry 1.
The new Bell 407GXP single-engine helicopter, slated for delivery next year, will cost the Sheriff’s Office a projected $5.1 million, including $1.5 million in equipment for law enforcement and search-and-rescue operations.
At the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, where Rob Giordano, formerly the assistant sheriff, was appointed to replace former Sheriff Steve Freitas, the supervisors also voted to approve $2.5 million in financing to purchase the new helicopter — the final hurdle to replace the aging Henry 1.
Capt. Mark Essick told supervisors the helicopter replacement has been a “huge project” more than three years in the making.
“It’s been a great helicopter for us, but like any piece of equipment, it starts to age, and with age comes maintenance issues and reliability issues,” Essick said. “The other issue that comes up is technology. We’re flying a helicopter that was manufactured in 1996, with 1996 technology … There’s been huge advances in safety, navigation capabilities.”
The helicopter responds to calls throughout the North Coast, from rescues on the Sonoma Coast and firefighting assistance to suspect location and apprehension. Henry 1 logged 942 calls for service in the fiscal year 2016-17.
The bulk of the funding for the new purchase, $2.9 million, will come from asset forfeitures — money seized from drug and other criminal investigations. The Sheriff’s Office also secured a $100,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security for the purchase.
The Sheriff’s Office has noted rising maintenance costs as a key factor prompting replacement of the current 1996 Bell 407 helicopter.
By next spring — about the time the new aircraft will arrive — the current unit will be close to reaching 10,000 hours of service, a point that triggers up to $500,000 of repair and maintenance.
“We’re running against a clock here with Henry 1,” Essick said Tuesday.
The Sheriff’s Office purchased its current helicopter from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2009 for $2.1 million. From 1982 to 2008 Sonoma County contracted helicopter service with a private operator.
The Sheriff’s Office plans to sell its current aircraft for roughly $500,000, said longtime pilot Paul Bradley. Similar models are listed online for $1.5 million, but required maintenance will depress the resale price, he said.
The Henry 1 team operated on an annual budget of $2.2 million last year. The team typically includes the pilot, a deputy who acts as a tactical flight officer and a paramedic. The crew is on duty 10 hours a day, but on call around the clock, seven days a week.
“Whenever I hike in one of our parks, I always have this thought that if I fell down and broke my leg, that Henry would be there for me,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, during Tuesday’s meeting.
“A lot of us think very fondly of Henry in terms of the helicopter that not only saves lives in terms of picking people up when they’re in distress, but also does the rescue and search missions, too, which is so important to families.”