Rescue helicopters are expensive, there’s no way of getting away from it. From their initial purchase and their cost per flight hour, to the investment made in the highly skilled crews needed to operate them. This doesn’t get cheaper no matter what generation of helicopter comes on to the market. Sure, maintenance costs might be reduced over a period of time, but ‘choppers’ are pricey and vital. With many rescue platforms relying on donations or sponsorship it’s been inevitable this year that due to the global COVID-19 crisis, budgets have been slashed in order for governments to maintain some stability of their shrinking resources.
A typical example of the crises facing rescue helicopters is demonstrated by California’s Sonoma County Sheriff’s helicopter rescue unit. Having saved two firefighters who had become trapped on a ridge in a forest fire on 28 August, just days later it’s been revealed that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s helicopter programme, which conducts nearly 900 missions per year, is at the risk of being eliminated due to budget shortfalls.
The programme is known as Henry One. With his department losing US$14 million due to major budget cuts, Sheriff Mark Essick says the rescue chopper programme could be a victim of that financial shortfall.
“Henry One is about a $2.2 million project that we spend every year, and it certainly is a project that we are looking at very carefully, closely,” said Sheriff Essick. “And certainly, it is at risk at this point.” Budget cuts or not, the remarkable programme has saved lives all across Sonoma County’s 1,600 square miles.
Henry One has assisted in police pursuits and rescued hundreds of people all along the miles of rugged Sonoma coastline, pulling individuals from remote beaches, cliffs, mountain tops and other difficult areas that only a trained crew and helicopter can reach.
The Sheriff’s Office hopes that funding for the life-saving programme can be found as the county faces budget shortages compounded by the financial challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
“My hope is that our community will really see the value of the helicopter. It is a costly programme, yes, but it absolutely saves lives every day,” said Sheriff Essick.