BY ADAM LINHARDT Free Press Staff


MARATHON —Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay was pointing out the features of the new $2.5 million Sikorsky helicopter destined to be the new air ambulance for the Florida Keys last week when he pointed to the tail number — N911RR.

“The last two letters don’t stand for Rick Ramsay. I want to get that out of the way first,” he said. “We chose those for Rick Roth. He was the sheriff responsible for starting the program.”

 Roth was the long-standing Keys sheriff who retired roughly eight years ago. 

The new helicopter arrived last week after the Monroe County Commission voted to approve its purchase in June. The new helicopter had been recently traded in to the manufacturer by the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Sikorsky cut the county a deal as brand-new models can run as high as $18 million, Ramsay said.

 The helicopter has about 11,000 hours of flying time on its fuselage, but the fuselage has a life expectancy of about 28,000 hours, Ramsay said. 

In the past 11 years, since the sheriff’s office has used Trauma Star, the agency has put about 4,500 hours of flying time on the helicopter’s fuselage, Ramsay said.

 That means the new helicopter should be good for about 20 years of flying, Ramsay said. The older 1981 chopper is not as fast and cannot lift as much weight as the new helicopter, he added.

Ramsay said the plan is to use the old helicopter when the new one is in maintenance, which may translate to roughly 10 percent of the flights, give or take, depending on need. The sheriff’s office flew the old Trauma Star about 400 times last year and is on schedule to fly 500 times this year, Ramsay said. Right now, the sheriff’s office is waiting on final approval of paperwork by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Funds to pay for the helicopter came out of the county’s capital improvement fund, which is supported by sales tax revenue. The sheriff’s office bought the old Trauma Star helicopter for about $3.2 million and replaced it because of increased maintenance due in part to high use, Ramsay said.

 Ramsay hopes to have the new chopper in the air by the end of this month. 

Lower Keys Medical Center interim CEO Stephen Pennington announced last week that the hospital’s contract with the privately owned Life Net medical helicopter stationed at that hospital will end on March 1, 2017, and alternative arrangements will be in place by then.

 Life Net flights cost Monroe County residents $60,000, while out-of-pocket fees are waived for residents who take the county-owned Trauma Star helicopter to mainland hospitals. Trauma Star still bills all insurance carriers for the flights. 

Whether the Lower Keys Medical Center-based chopper will be operated by another private company or the county remains to be seen. alinhardt@keysnews. com