Austin residents can rest a little easier once Travis County's new Star Flight helicopter arrives, outfitted specifically for fighting wildfires, an ever-present risk in the area's hilly, forested terrain.
Funded by bond purchases, the $2.2 million helicopter is classified as Star Flight 4 but won't be used for patient transport, only firefighting or disaster response, said Casey Ping, Travis County STAR Flight program director.
The aircraft, set to arrive around April 21, is a UH-1H or "Huey" that has been stripped down to its airframe and refurbished with tools, equipment and a water-carrying capacity that is nearly three times greater than the nonmodified models used to fight the 2011 Steiner Ranch wildfires, Ping said.
Currently, Star Flight helicopters can hold about 130 gallons of water and access a water source through a bucket hanging from its belly. Star Flight 4 will be able to hold up to 325 gallons of water which it can siphon through a hose, drawing the water into a container bolted to its undercarriage.
The hose method of drawing water is much safer for pilots, and the helicopter can get to places by air that ground crews can't access, Ping said. The aircraft will be kept in a hangar in East Austin and will support any fire department in Travis County and neighboring areas if available.
Star Flight 4 was originally manufactured by Bell and retrofitted by Northwest Helicopters in Olympia, Wash. Although similar helicopters are used by California fire departments, Travis County is the first area in Texas to receive the specially equipped aircraft, Ping said.
Robert Abbott, Lake Travis Fire Rescue interim fire chief, said he is looking forward to having the new equipment as a firefighting option available to ESD No. 6.
"The helicopter is timely given our drought," Abbott said. "Having this as a resource going into the fire season will be a great, great tool. It makes the logistics of getting water into the aircraft safer and more efficient since it's specifically designed for that type of work. It will be a night-and-day difference with this aircraft."