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Supervisors approve sole-source contract for helicopter conversion

A March 2 vote of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a sole-source contract to convert an existing MD500E helicopter into an MD530FF helicopter.

The supervisors authorized the director of the county’s Department of Purchasing and Contracting to enter into negotiations with MD Helicopter, Inc., and to award the contract for the conversion contingent upon successful negotiations and determination of a fair and reasonable price. Although the contract amount has yet to be determined, the estimated costs for both the contract and the county’s administrative expenses are $1.067 million.

The helicopter is operated by the sheriff’s department, whose Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies (ASTREA) unit utilizes a mixed fleet of law enforcement helicopters manufactured by Bell and McDonnell Douglas. The helicopters are used for locating suspects, search and rescue missions, firefighting and other purposes.

The MD500E helicopter that is to be converted was purchased by the county in 2000. It performed well for its first three years, but since 2003 more than $200,000 has been spent on repairs to that helicopter. Its engine has logged 4,355 hours and is considered to be at the end of its useful life, and the helicopter is currently grounded because it cannot generate the specified power required to perform missions safely and reliably.

ASTREA already has two MD530FF helicopters in its fleet, and MD Helicopter, Inc., has Federal Aviation Administration certification to convert an MD500E helicopter to an MD530FF. The current market value of the MD500E is estimated at $500,000 and a new MD530FF would cost $2.6 million, so even if the MD500E is sold a conversion would save the county more than $1 million compared to the purchase of a new MD530FF.

The conversion process will replace the existing engine, horizontal stabilizer, rotor blades, transmission drive shaft, tail rotor drive shaft, and other components unique to the MD530FF. The tail boom will be lengthened and the engine compartment will be modified to accommodate the new engine. The new engine is expected to provide the helicopter with an additional 12,000 hours of useful life, which based on expected usage equates to an additional 20 years of service. The MD530FF can also fly at higher altitudes and carry greater payloads than the MD500E, and it can perform better at extreme temperatures.

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