STARS gearing up to replace aging chopper fleet in Alberta

STARS Air Ambulance needs to modernize its aging fleet of helicopters or see more aircraft grounded while waiting for hard-to-get parts.

“It’s not that they’re ancient, but the [BKs] have been deemed a legacy aircraft so it’s difficult to get parts for them and that will get tougher and tougher and tougher,” said Andrea Robertson, president and CEO of STARS.

“If we don’t get ahead of it, then we have a problem.”

A new fleet of choppers will ensure the non-profit agency remains airborne for another 30 years, she said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

The agency wants to replace its current fleet of 11 helicopters in western Canada with nine new Airbus H145 helicopters.

Best practice

“Best practice today would say that an organization of our size should be flying one aircraft, not multiple types and so it is a long term plan for us to get to a single type of aircraft,” Robertson said. 

“We’ve been in the gig for almost 34 years and we think this is another long-term plan.”

In western Canada, STARS currently operates a fleet comprised of eight Airbus BK117 and three AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters, which are specially outfitted for emergencies.

The aircraft are rotated in and out of service as the need for repairs and routine maintenance arises.

The AW139s entered the STARS fleet in 2012. The trademark BK117s have been flying since STARS officially launched in 1988.

“Our BKs are aging and they’re coming up to their end of their life,” Robertson said. “We’re trying to get in advance of that and make sure we’ve got a good solution for long term sustainability of the whole fleet.”

‘Chicken-and-egg thing’

A recently completed mechanical review demonstrated that the current roster of machines are beginning to wear out and are no longer cost-effective to maintain, Robertson said.  

The agency has already been forced to ground aircraft for weeks at a time, while repair crews wait for replacement parts.

STARS needs more than 60 million dollars to replace its aging Alberta fleet. I’ll ask their CEO where the organization plans to get the money from. 4:31

A fleet comprised of a single machine will help the agency streamline maintenance and keep costs down, Robertson said.

Five of the new choppers would be dedicated to responding to medical emergencies in Alberta, through STARS bases in Edmonton, Calgary and Grande Prairie, with each costing about $13 million.

The agency has already ordered one of the new choppers, which is set to arrive in Alberta in March 2019, but more financing is needed to order the four others, so STARS is launching a $65-million fundraising campaign. 

STARS is in talks with Alberta Health Services and Robertson anticipates some government funding will come through.

However, the agency will need to rely heavily on public donations to ensure the new fleet gets off the ground, Robertson said.

The old machines will also be sold off to cover some of the total price tag.

“This is just the beginning of this long term plan,” she said. “We need new aircraft in order to sell off the entire fleet.

“It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing.”

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