New Firefighting Helicopter to Land Soon in San Diego

Feb. 14, 2024
The $21 million Bell helicopter has a 375-gallon tank.

David Garrick

The San Diego Union-Tribune


San Diego is spending $21 million on a new firefighting helicopter needed to return the city's aerial firefighting capability back to recommended levels.

City officials announced Tuesday they've also secured nearly all the approvals needed to build a long-delayed hangar to house the city's three firefighting helicopters.

San Diego has had only two firefighting helicopters, instead of the recommended three, since the city removed a 43-year-old helicopter from service last July because of structural cracking.

The city increased its fleet from two to three firefighting helicopters in 2018 after an analysis of recent wildfires showed it was crucial to have three helicopters to increase the chances at least two aren't out of commission during a crisis.

Having three helicopters also puts the city in better position for a scenario where multiple wildfires are burning simultaneously, city officials said.

The new helicopter, a Bell 412EPX, will be able to hold and drop more water than the helicopter it is replacing. City officials say water capacity is crucial to putting out fires quickly.

"More delivered water increases the odds of extinguishing the fire during an initial attack," said Chuck MacFarland, the city's air operations chief.

The new helicopter will have a 375-gallon capacity. That's far less than the Sikorsky S70i Firehawk helicopter the city bought in 2018 as its premier apparatus for aerial firefighting.

The Sikorsky can carry up to 1,000 gallons, but city officials said they usually don't push it beyond 775 because of concerns about weight and pressure.

MacFarland said climate change has made aerial firefighting capability more crucial because fires are burning hotter and faster and they are threatening more people and structures.

The city's fleet will now feature the new helicopter, the Sikorsky and a Bell 412EP the city bought in 2008.

Shortly after the city bought the Sikorsky, the City Council approved plans to build a 33,000-square-foot hangar at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in Kearny Mesa to shield the helicopters from the wear and tear that comes with being stored outdoors.

"Having our helicopters in the elements all year long really increases our maintenance and our out-of-service time," Assistant Chief Dave Gerboth said.

Construction of the hangar has been delayed by the need to get approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's been a long drawn-out process," MacFarland said, estimating all approvals would be secured within six month.

But he said the delay has increased the cost of the hangar far beyond the $20 million approved six years ago because of rising costs for labor and materials. He said that means the hangar will likely be built in phases.

He said it's rare for a city to store its helicopters outdoors, noting that Los Angeles houses all seven of its firefighting helicopters indoors.

"We're an anomaly," MacFarland said. "They're just not made to sit outside."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2024 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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