The Ventura County Air Unit is adding a new bird to the flock.

County officials approved the $14.5 million acquisition of a Bell 412EPX helicopter to be used for search-and-rescue missions by the aviation unit as well as for general law enforcement operations. The decision was passed unanimously during a Board of Supervisors meeting last week.

The new helicopter will replace one of the unit’s current search-and-rescue aircraft, a 1969 Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as a “Huey.” The new copter is currently scheduled to arrive in October.

“It’s like buying a 2022 Chevy instead of a 1955 Chevy,” said Capt. Randy Downard, a Ventura County Sheriff’s deputy who currently oversees the air unit, which jointly serves the sheriff’s agency and the county fire department.

Since the old and new helicopters are made by the same manufacturer, the unit can reuse approximately $2 million worth of equipment and parts. The two helicopters also have similar dimensions and weight, allowing pilots to use the same remote landing areas and rescue procedures already in place.

County officials said funding will be provided by $9.5 million from general fund reserves and $5 million from Proposition 172 public safety funds, a half-cent state sales tax approved by voters in 1993. Both pots draw from separate funds than the county’s rainy day reserve, officials said. Air Unit personnel also plan to sell one of the Huey helicopters once the 412EPX is in service.

Downard said the new helicopter’s modern upgrades will enhance all aspects of search-and-rescue efforts, which have included 502 rescue and medical evacuation missions over the past two years.

“For safety reasons, budget reasons and flat-out performance and ability, this is going to be a tremendous help,” Downard said.

The Bell 412EPX can carry up to 12,500 pounds, 14 passengers and 375 gallons of water. Another upgrade from the Huey is its dual-engine redundancy, Downard said, allowing the helicopter to keep operating even if there is a total failure of one of the engines.

Ventura County Fire Department Capt. Brian McGrath said the incoming Bell will be brand new and state-of-the-art. The two Sikorsky Firehawks refurbished by the air unit last year are former military copters, he said. The Firehawks served a different function by greatly expanding the county’s aerial firefighting capacity.

The new Bell will specialize in law enforcement and search-and-rescue duties, McGrath said, but will also be able to drop water.

McGrath described the Bell as a “medium” helicopter, while the Firehawks are “heavies.”

“Sometimes medium helicopters are the most appropriate for the mission at hand,” he said. Medium helicopters are also less expensive to operate, he said.

The diversified equipment will make Ventura County’s fleet “a very robust” aerial unit, McGrath said.

Source: Jeremy Childs, Ventura County Star