Saturday, October 03, 2015

Alaska State Troopers down to 1 chopper, can only afford to operate it for 9 more months

ANCHORAGE –  Alaska State Troopers own two search and rescue helicopters, Anchorage-based Helo 3 and Fairbanks-based Helo 2, which has been grounded indefinitely due to budget cuts. If changes aren’t made during the upcoming regular legislative session, they might not have a chopper at all.

Helo 2 has been out of commission since July, and troopers use Helo 3 in Anchorage for several missions every week, but right now, they can only afford to keep it in use through June of 2016.

Alpine Air Alaska helicopters are used for tourism about 40 percent of the time. But this past weekend, their mission was a more serious one, searching for a missing Anchorage man who disappeared.

KTVA got mixed signals about why the trooper’s helicopter didn’t fly.

“Somebody donated the money for that helicopter to be out here, the state troopers are not releasing their helicopter because of budget constraints,” the lead organizer for the Auxiliary Search Team said Sunday.

But Thursday, troopers told us they couldn’t launch the chopper because of bad weather conditions in Anchorage.

Keith Essex with Alpine Air said the weather wasn’t as bad in Girdwood, so a family friend of the missing man paid them to search, and they also donated some search time.

“Weather was actually much lower in Anchorage than it was here, which is not that common,” he said

Now that the chopper in Fairbanks is grounded, there have been other times when weather is fine but troopers have had to contract with outside companies for search and rescue missions because they’re down to one helicopter.

“Overall it’s about $250,000 per year for a helicopter to operate in Fairbanks,” said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Maj. Bernard Chastain.

Lt. Steven Adams is the Search and Rescue coordinator for the AST.

“There’s been times where we cannot effect the search and rescue with our own resources, and we’ve had to ask for assistance or a charter aircraft, but we don’t turn down search and rescue,” Adams said.

Troopers say they’ll make sure someone comes to help, but it may cost more money, and worse, more time. And if they don’t get more funds soon, they won’t have a helicopter in commission at all, and more calls for search and rescues will involve contracting companies like Alpine Air.

“Usually, like in the heat of something, it’s usually pretty tense and you’re usually focused on what you’re doing too,” Essex said. “You’re focused on not getting caught up in the whirlwind of what’s happening around you, concentrating on operating the helicopter and not getting involved with the emotion of what’s going on.”

He says their aircraft is similar to the ones troopers use, but the people operating them, while they’re willing to go, just don’t have the same emergency training and experience,

“If they do need our help more often, we’re here to help,” he added.

In just the last two years, the trooper choppers have been involved in the rescue and recovery of more than 1,500 people.

Now it’s up to legislators to decide where it fits into the budget.

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