Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Report suggests eliminating high-end North Carolina helicopter

RALEIGH, N.C. — As North Carolina pares down its state aircraft fleet, it should get rid of a pricey helicopter that flies infrequently and is used to ferry corporate bigwigs to building sites and governors to tour hurricane damage, the Legislature's fiscal watchdog agency said Wednesday.

The Program Evaluation Division suggested in a report that the Department of Transportation get rid of its Sikorsky S-76C+ helicopter, which flew on average less than six hours per month last year at an operating cost of $560,000 for 2011. The Department of Transportation said later Wednesday it's looking at selling the helicopter and replacing it with another brand that costs less to operate and could serve both law enforcement and economic development.

The report is a follow-up to a 2010 study that prompted the Legislature to direct the sale of underused planes and consolidation of some state aviation programs. Since then, the number of state-owned aircraft has fallen from 72 to 53, the evaluation division said.

Wednesday's report said the state could go further by eliminating the twin-engine Sikorsky, which was used about half the time in 2011 by the Department of Commerce. Another one-quarter of the time was used by the "executive branch." The helicopter has been a frequent vehicle for governors who tour the state during a natural disaster.

The Commerce Department also uses the helicopter to take company executives and consultants interested in building or expanding operations in the state to potential plant sites. The aircraft, bought in 1998 by the state for $6.2 million, seats seven and features leather seats, wood interior and a refreshment center to store drinks and snacks, according to DOT.

"It's a limousine," Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, co-chairwoman of the Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, told a colleague during the report's presentation.

The 66 hours the Sikorsky flew last year fell well below the 200 flight hours that report authors said is a conservative industry benchmark to justify owning the aircraft. The cost of operating and maintaining a twin-engine Bell helicopter, for example, could be at least 40 percent less than a Sikorsky aircraft, the report said.

Catherine Moga Bryant, the report's lead author, said the option of chartering private helicopters could pose problems because an executive-style helicopter similar to the Sikorsky would have to be flown in from other states.

Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, said he's for cost savings and efficiency, but warned the state shouldn't cut corners that would make it difficult to have a nice helicopter available in short order for executives who are deciding where to expand.

The Sikorsky "may be a limousine, but we're competing with other companies and other states," Gunn said. "These companies are on very tight timeframes."

Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, suggested the state could do economic recruiting just as well in a less-expensive model: "I can't imagine a single business out there considering North Carolina cares which type of helicopter they're flown around in."

Richard Walls, the Department of Transportation's aviation director, said in an interview the Sikorsky has many safety features and operating redundancies that serve business executives well.

"It's a very, very good helicopter. It's a high-end helicopter," he added. Walls said Bell helicopters are generally considered better for law enforcement uses, but with interior upgrades they could be great dual-purpose aircraft, he said. He said proceeds from selling the Sikorsky could pay for most if not all of a Bell helicopter, which he estimated could cost $3.5 million.

The Department of Commerce is willing to share a helicopter with the Highway Patrol, but there would have to be guidelines on how to prioritize its use by the agencies, assistant department secretary Tim Crowley said. "We're of the opinion that there needs to be adequate aviation capabilities when it comes to showing sites to corporate executives," Crowley said.

Wednesday's report also suggested the Legislature should consider alternatives for two planes operated by the State Bureau of Investigation, which flew a combined 177 hours last year. The SBI's aircraft facility in Erwin also should be closed and the planes housed at a DOT facility at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, at an annual savings of $111,000, the report said.

SBI Director Greg McLeod, in a prepared response to the report, opposed the recommendations. He said the SBI needs a confidential area to keep planes because of the sensitive nature of criminal investigations. Alternatives to owning the planes — using a DOT plane for aerial photography or using a DOT plane or a private contractor for transporting extradited fugitives — aren't feasible, McLeod wrote.


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