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STAR Flight upgrading helicopter fleet, increasing response capabilities

Travis County Emergency Services is downsizing its helicopter fleet as it looks to replace its four rescue helicopters. (CBS Austin)

Travis County Emergency Services is downsizing its helicopter fleet as it looks to replace its four rescue helicopters. Officials say the change will allow first responders to do more.

On Tuesday, Travis County Commissioners approved the purchase of three new helicopters to replace STAR Flight's three ECU-145's and the Vietnam-era Huey firefighting helicopter.

They use the fleet for rescues, searches, and fighting fires, but they're aging, and maintenance costs are beginning to soar.

"Keeping the current fleet over the 10-year period was actually the most expensive option," STAR Flight Program Director Casey Ping said.

The ECU-145's are now 12 years old, and maintenance estimates are between 6 and 7 million dollars.

"As airccraft age just like a car, there are gonna be expenses that come along, and some of those things are going to be very expensive," Ping said.

Replacing them will cost around $30 million, but with the help of a donation from Seton Medical Center and money made from selling the Huey helicopter, it will only be a $10 million expense for tax payers.

"The Huey was bought specifically as a response to the wildfires that we had in 2011, so really just to add capacity being able to carry more water," Ping said.

The Huey was also used to battle a wildfire that burned through 25-acres in Bastrop in August.

It can hold around 300-gallons of water while the smaller aircraft can only carry about 120.

"The new fleet would have that 300-gallon capacity across all three of the aircraft, so that's why we feel the downsizing is appropriate," Ping said.

They'll also be able to carry more people and travel further distances.

"We'll be able to take patients directly into the cabin on a rescue. currently sometimes we have to go land and set them on the ground," Ping said. "In some cases, we're really the only resources available to do those kinds of missions."

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