Friends tell each other all kinds of things.
So, this summer when a friend of San Miguel Sheriff Bill Masters remarked offhandedly that he’d get his department a helicopter, the sheriff dismissed it as friendly banter.
Imagine Masters’ surprise weeks later as he stood on the Telluride Regional Airport tarmac looking at a brand-new $4.5 million Airbus H-25 that was donated to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Are you kidding me? I was shocked and so grateful,” he said. “We’ve always talked about how useful one would be in the work we do. It has been a dream to provide this for our county.”
Now, it’s a reality thanks to his generous pal, who said he wanted to remain anonymous.
“His only requirement was that we put it to good use serving the public, and it will be,” Masters said.
The helicopter is designed for high-altitude flights in the mountains. The model is the only one to have landed and taken off on Mount Everest at 29,032 feet elevation.
The new aircraft will be used for search and rescue missions, firefighting efforts, humanitarian missions and law enforcement support, Masters said. It will be available to assist local and regional emergency service providers as well.
The county will continue to rely on state and federal air resources for direct aerial attacks on wildfires such as dropping retardant. The new helicopter might later be equipped for direct firefighting duties, Masters said.
It will be used right away for detecting new wildfires – such as from lightning storms or ember showers. It will be an essential tool for evacuations in emergencies such as wildfires.
The donor has agreed to pay for maintenance, fuel and operating supplies for two years, and will donate his time as a pilot, said Susan Lilly, public information officer for the San Miguel Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office will pay for a second pilot to help meet the needs of the department.
It is estimated at first the new helicopter will be used five to 10 times per month. Training will be available for emergency responders who will use the new helicopter, Masters said.
After two years, the Sheriff’s Office will be responsible for all maintenance and operational costs.
Masters said budget planning for the new aircraft is in progress, but the figures have not been finalized.
The department will incur additional costs, but he said they will be manageable and that the benefits a helicopter brings to the public will outweigh the extra expense.
“We live in a remote area, with isolated neighborhoods, towns and ranches. We know how fast wildfires can move, the destruction they can cause. This really cuts the response time for critical emergency services like evacuations and rescues,” Masters said.
Fundraising and grants will be sought to help offset costs. The sheriff says all who venture into the backcountry should have their Colorado Search and Rescue Card. The state funds help pay for rescues, including the more costly ones that use aircraft.
“We rely on these state funds as much as you rely on search and rescue,” he said.
The first flights are underway with the new helicopter. The sheriff and the donor have been checking out the best landing places for rescues that frequently occur on area peaks.
The performance and computer technology of the craft are impressive, Masters said.
“We were flying over the Wilson range at 14,000 feet mapping landing zones, and could have flown over 10,000 feet higher. It is the same model used in the Himalayas,” Masters said. “It is going to be a great resource.”
The new chopper will be stationed at an indoor hangar at the Telluride Regional Airport.