LA County supervisors OK 14 new choppers for sheriff's dept.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today authorized the Sheriff's Department to buy as many as 14 new helicopters at a cost of about $56.7 million.

Twelve Eurocopter Astar 350 helicopters will replace seven-year-old aircraft that the department says are getting increasingly expensive to repair and have outlived their "optimal life span'' of 7,000 flight hours or seven years of service.

The board also OK'ed an option to buy two more copters to expand the sheriff's fleet of patrol choppers. The department says it needs 14 of the flyers to keep a minimum of 10 airworthy at any time, given downtime for maintenance.

Each of the aircraft costs about $2 million, including taxes. But it will take another $2.1 million more to outfit each bird for use by sheriff's deputies.

The department chose to stay with the same model of aircraft, which it said provided optimal performance. Officials also noted that the department had invested thousands of hours into pilot and technical training that are specific to the Astar model.

About $40.5 million of the equipment cost is expected to come from a bond financing and the department expects to raise another $16.2 million by selling the helicopters they are retiring.

The replacement plan does not include retiring the department's venerable fleet of three Sikorsky Sea King choppers that date from the 1960s and are used for mountain rescue missions. Those helicopters have been kept in airworthy condition by the department because they can be used at high
altitudes or in rough weather.

The Sikorskys are generally called "Air Rescue 5'' in Los Angeles County, and are staffed with paramedics and mountain rescue experts for use in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains.