For more than two years, the N.C. Department of Transportation has tried – and failed – to sell its seven-passenger helicopter.
One listing on eBay in May 2014 yielded zero bidders. NCDOT posted it again on eBay the next month and received an offer of $1.5 million, short of the department’s goal of grossing at least $2 million.
A photo of the 1998 Sikorsky S-76C+ aircraft – complete with sheepskin seat covers and heated foot pads in the cockpit – has been included with listings on www.controller.com and www.globalair.com for 2 1/2 years, but the aircraft, listed at $2.25 million, has yet to be sold.
Now, it looks like the state may finally have a buyer as well as a competing offer to trade the helicopter for one that might be more useful to the state. If one of the deals works out, it will end a process that began more than two years ago when the General Assembly mandated the NCDOT sell the helicopter and a Cessna 550 Citation Bravo airplane as “expeditiously as possible.”
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The mandate was an effort by the legislature to shrink the state’s air fleet to reduce operation and maintenance costs. Bobby Walston, NCDOT’s aviation division director, says that since then, the department has “consistently made an ongoing effort to sell the aircraft and has worked to achieve efficiencies and reduce costs on the current fleet.”
Gov. Pat McCrory made a similar attempt to save money a few months prior to the legislative action when he announced he had instructed NCDOT to sell the helicopter. The Cessna 550 Citation Bravo airplane was sold Sept. 30 for $510,000.
The helicopter was appraised at $2.55 million. Despite the legislative mandate, some legislators, including Sen. Bill Rabon, co-chairman of the Senate transportation committee, says he doesn’t mind waiting a little longer if necessary to get a “fair price.”
“Are we getting the best deal?’ he said. “If we are, go for it. If not, let’s sell it next year.”
There are at least two potential deals on the table for the 1998 Sikorsky S-76C+ helicopter, which was purchased under Gov. Jim Hunt in 1998. Either deal could close before the end of the year, according to NCDOT documents.
NCDOT may sell the helicopter to Streamline Industries LLC in Deer Park, Texas, according to a letter dated Dec. 15, from Walston to the company, offering to sell the aircraft for $2.25 million.
But the Murray Energy Corporation in St. Clairsville, Ohio, sent a letter to the department dated a day later proposing to trade its 2004 Bell 427 helicopter for North Carolina’s aircraft. Bell helicopters are used by the State Highway Patrol, so the Murray one could potentially be shared between the two departments.
The December 16 letter also references a former proposal made on December 9.
“Time is of the essence with respect to this new proposal,” said Robert D. Moore, executive vice president of Murray Energy Corporation, in the letter. “As a result, we would like to conclude this transaction on or before Dec. 23, 2016, or once inspections of each helicopter have been completed.”
Walston said the N.C. Department of Transportation will not confirm past or current offers until a deal is final.
The N.C. Department of Commerce purchased the helicopter for $6.8 million in 1998 to replace an aging one. It was intended for business and industry recruiting and economic development purposes, Walston said.
“That still is the intention today,” he said. “But historically, it’s been utilized for disaster recovery missions and for transporting the governor and other state agencies on official business.”
DOT owns two other airplanes – a 2007 King Air 200 and a 2007 King Air C90. The former can accommodate up to nine passengers, and the latter can serve up to six but is currently being used to carry equipment to take aerial photos for surveying and mapping purposes.
The helicopter has been used by every governor since its purchase, but use declined during McCrory’s administration, the governor’s office said in May 2014 when McCrory instructed NCDOT to sell it. McCrory’s primary mode of air travel was one of the King Airs, Walston said.
The helicopter was used for only 14.3 hours in 2013 – down from 62.9 hours the year before – but it cost $265,000 to operate and maintain, the governor’s office said. Flight time for the helicopter has averaged about 25 hours per year since then.
While the legislature directed the department to sell the helicopter in 2014, Rabon said he and other Republican leaders in the legislature had for years discussed shrinking NCDOT’s fleet of aircraft to save money.
The N.C. Department of Public Safety, N.C. Forest Service, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the UNC School of Medicine also have their own aircraft, according to NCDOT.
“Everybody in state government likes toys. Every department likes toys,” Rabon said. “It boils down to many times one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing. Efficiency is the key. Efficiency and common sense and saving taxpayers money.”
But users of the aircraft under previous administrations have said the helicopter is a crucial tool in recruiting new businesses and economic development opportunities to the state by letting clients see property from the air and transporting them around a large state. In 2008, under Gov. Mike Easley, the helicopter was used for 78.7 hours, and in 2011, under Gov. Bev Perdue, it was used for 62.9 hours, according to governor’s office.
But Rabon says there always are other, more cost effective ways of getting people into the air, including renting an aircraft when needed.
“I trust the folks in the leadership at DOT right now,” he said about the potential sale. “If they think it’s the best thing. I want to go along with them. If they think it’s not the best thing for the department and the people and we should take a second look then we’ll do that. When the administration changes, I’ll feel pretty much the same way.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon