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Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to buy new helicopter for up to $6 million

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On any given day, calls come in to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office that require airborne aid for all manner of law enforcement work and emergency response. Soon enough, Henry 1, the agency’s well-known helicopter, is aloft and en route, be it to long-line rescue on the coast, a medical transport of a badly injured Highway 101 motorist or fire suppression on wild lands ablaze.

But the 21-year-old green and gold aircraft is nearing 10,000 hours of service, with maintenance costs on the rise, so the Sheriff’s Office is looking to buy a replacement helicopter by next March, mostly with funds seized in criminal investigations.

“The aircraft is a utility machine and we’re really hard on it,” said Paul Bradley, chief pilot for the sheriff’s helicopter unit. “We respond to emergencies in harsh environments while pushing top speeds and hauling max gross weight.”

The 1996 Bell 407 helicopter, purchased from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008 for $2.1 million, currently requires more than a $500,000 in long-term maintenance and part replacements, Bradley said.

“It’s not going to fall out of the sky, but it’s going to get really expensive to maintain,” he said.

Instead of overhauling the aircraft, the Sheriff’s Office plans the purchase a new Bell helicopter, at cost of about $5 million to $6 million. The Board of Supervisors is set to vote on the big-ticket allocation at its Aug. 1 meeting, said Sgt. Spencer Crum, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

The department plans to pay for the new aircraft with $3 million in asset forfeitures collected in criminal investigations. Additional funding will come from a loan and $100,000 in federal grant money, Crum said.

From 2010 to 2016 the Sheriff’s Office collected $4.9 million in forfeited assets, both cash and property, mostly from drug investigations. The $3 million tapped for the new helicopter will bring the Sheriff’s Office share of those assets to nearly zero, Crum said.

Similar 1996 Bell 407 helicopters still fetch prices of nearly $1.5 million, but the Sheriff’s Office will likely sell its model for $500,000 as the needed repairs will significantly push down the price, Bradley said.

The Henry 1 averages 900 missions a year and had a $2.2 million budget in the 2016-17 fiscal year, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The typical three-person flight crew includes a deputy sheriff who serves as a tactical flight officer, a pilot and a paramedic. Crews are on duty 10 hours a day but are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Henry 1 responds to law enforcement, search and rescue, medical and fire calls primarily in Sonoma County. But the aircraft crew is well known across the wider North Coast and Bay Area for their assistance and expertise.

In 2014, Bradley was named the AAA’s Rescuer of the Year for a daring 2013 nighttime rescue in Del Norte County. He flew Henry 1 250 miles to the north to pluck an injured woman, a paramedic and a Del Norte County deputy sheriff off a rocky beach after they were stranded by an oncoming tide and rough sea.

The initial three decades of the sheriff’s helicopter program were scarred by crashes and fatalities. In the 1960s, Sgt. Ed Wilkinson flew his personal helicopter for the agency until a crash near Jenner in 1964. The Sheriff’s Office then purchased its first chopper in 1972. Five years later, Wilkinson was killed in a crash while searching for a lost child.

In 1980, deputy sheriff’s Brent Jameson and Bliss Magley died in a helicopter crash while returning from an officer-involved shooting. The county purchased a third helicopter in 1981 only to see it ruined in yet another crash on tidal rocks north of Jenner in 1982.

Sonoma County then contracted out its helicopter unit to a private operator until the current Henry 1 aircraft was purchased in 2008.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com.

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