Budget conference: Ag. Department’s aircraft replacement plan off to turbulent start
A helicopter, carrying a bucket, flies near a brush fire in Golden Gate Estates, Fla., on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Crews worked to contain four brush fires totaling about 400 acres and threatening 30 homes in the Estates. (Jon Austria/Naples Daily News via AP)

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Some helicopters in the fleet date back to the Vietnam era.

Republican Sen. Ben Albritton is confident the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) will soon retire its Vietnam-era aviation fleet, despite the House and Senate seemingly divided over the price tag. 

The Senate is seeking $26.5 million to replace the department’s four aging helicopters and an airplane the department uses to fight wildfires. The House’s budget proposal, though, proposes $5.1 million toward replacements — a striking $21.4 million difference. 

Still, Albritton, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Environment & General Government Committee, is optimistic.

“Do I believe that we’re going to be able to work through it and get to a place to where we can reinstate the state’s aircraft fleet? I do believe so,” Albritton told Florida Politics. “My glass is half full. I live that way.”

The Agriculture Department has long sought to replace the Vietnam-era fleet, but has struggled to secure funding for it. In years past, the Legislature has instead funded upgrades, noted Senate President spokesperson Katie Betta.

“Most of the helicopters the Florida Forest Service has are from the 1970s,” Betta told Florida Politics. “Some are from the 1960s.”

The Florida Forest Service manages 17-single engine planes and two multiengine airplanes. They also manage seven helicopters, two UH-1 Hueys and two OH-58 Kiowa. 

A team of 16 airplane pilots and seven helicopter pilots operate the fleet, all of whom are certified firefighters. 

Despite their growing age, the helicopters remain able to adequately perform fire suppression activities. 

The UH-1 Huey is capable of dropping up to 320 gallons of foam or water and can transport up to seven firefighters.

The OH-58 Kiowa, which is predominately used for observation work, is mighty enough to carry a 75 gallon water bucket. 

Meanwhile, the fixed-wing is used to transport firefighters and provide aerial fire detection. 

Wildfires scorched more than 8,000 acres in Florida in 2021. Lightning and humans are the leading causes of wildfire.

Jason Delgado

Jason Delgado covers news out of the Florida State Capitol. After a go with the U.S. Army, the Orlando-native attended the University of Central Florida and earned a degree in American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. He'd love to hear from you. You can reach Jason by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter at @byJasonDelgado.


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