Merced deputies to get wartime helicopter

An iconic Vietnam War-era helicopter soon will bear the Merced County Sheriff Department's green and gold.

Sheriff's officials announced their plans this month to add a 1973 UH-1H Bell Helicopter, commonly known as Huey, to the department's aviation unit.

The Huey, valued at $922,704, is a donation from the California Emergency Management Agency under the California Public Safety Procurement Program, according to Cmdr. Tom Cavallero.

The department expects to have the Huey at Castle Airport by the end of this year. Cavallero said the Sheriff's Department had been on a list to receive a helicopter for about three years, and officials recently learned the Huey was available.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors approved acceptance of the donation last week.

The department has one helicopter, a 2005 Robinson R44 Raven II, but Cavallero said the Huey will serve a different purpose.

The Raven is used mainly for search and surveillance, but the Huey will be used to quickly carry people and equipment to areas not readily accessible by car or foot.

The Huey will be especially helpful in a disaster, such as a flood, Cavallero said, and it will help carry deputies and other personnel to illicit marijuana grows and drug operations in remote, rural areas of the county.

Right now, investigators often have to travel on foot through dense foliage and waist-high stagnant water to reach those areas. That can pose a problem for deputies because some drug runners are known to employ booby traps to protect their drugs.

No gadgetry, more space

Exposure to heat and the elements can impede deputies when trying to access the county's remote areas.

"We spot (the marijuana), and the teams sometimes have to hike and cut their way in," Cavallero said. "The less hiking we have to do, the less likely someone is going to get hurt."

The Huey doesn't boast the Raven's high-tech surveillance cameras and gadgetry, but it has much more space. The Raven can transport just two crew members and one passenger, but the Huey can transport two crew members and a minimum of six passengers, Cavallero said.

The Raven can't haul loads of equipment, but the Huey can perform that task adequately, Cavallero said.

The Raven may be a patrol car of the skies, he said, but the Huey is like a flying truck.

There are no acquisition costs associated with the donation, Cavallero said.

The Department of Defense pays about 50 percent of the fuel cost for the helicopter. Cavallero said the fuel cost will be about $200 an hour. He expects the Sheriff's Department to use the helicopter an average of 50 hours per year.

The helicopter will cost about $10,000 a year for maintenance inspections.

Cavallero pointed out that fuel and maintenance inspection costs won't be paid with county general fund dollars. He said those costs will be offset through grants and asset forfeitures.