New Helicopter Joins County Fire Dept. Fleet

It's old and yellow but "Copter 7" is no lemon.

In fact, officials are certain the overhauled 1969 Super Huey officially unveiled Thursday will be the best air resource for fighting fires in a fleet of four choppers that serve the 1,800 square miles of Ventura County.

"It's a tremendous tool," Sheriff's Capt. Keith Parks said after a water dropping display for a crowd of 100 deputies, firefighters and media at the county Fire Department headquarters at Camarillo Airport.

The Bell UH-1 was acquired free from the federal government and rebuilt for about $750,000 by the sheriff's aviation unit, officials said.

The chopper has logged fewer than 6,000 flying hours despite being stationed in Korea, Vietnam and Panama. Parks said helicopters of similar age can average closer to 30,000 flying hours.

Copter 7 is the only one in the fleet with the capability of firefighting solely from the air. Connected to the belly of the blue-striped helicopter is a 10-foot snorkel that can inhale 360 gallons of water from any body of water in 60 seconds.

"It will help from keeping small fires from getting larger," said county fire spokesman Joe Luna, referring to the Super Huey's fast turnaround time.

The fleet's other water-dropping choppers, also Bell UH-1s, must land to be loaded with water. The fleet's fourth chopper is a Boeing 530F that is used primarily for search and rescue, Parks said.

With Copter 7, water loads can be dumped all at once or split. And the chopper has the capacity to carry 13 hand-crew members and their equipment to a fire versus the nine seats available for pilots and crew in the smaller Hueys.

The new chopper has a range of more than 320 miles and can remain airborne for two hours and 30 minutes, with a top speed of 140 mph, officials said. It can be outfitted with a thermal imagery camera, which detects a fire's intensity, as well as night vision and computer mapping systems.

Parks said the addition of Copter 7 means the county now has a larger air fleet than many other counties of similar size. But he defended the move based on the chopper's capabilities, the county's history of serious fire seasons and the cost of a new chopper, which runs about $4 million.

On June 5, Copter 7 assisted in dousing a 50-acre brush fire in Oak Park.

The fire season officially started Wednesday, a month later than normal because of the excessive number of El Nino-fueled storms.

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