Free sounds great until you find out the maintenance costs will make a huge dent in your budget. That’s what happened to the City of Newark when they were given a free helicopter from the U.S. Army. So far, it has cost them more than $2 million to maintain and operate the aircraft.
According to FOX News, documents obtained by NJ Advance Media showed that the 42-year-old Vietnam-era OH-58A Bell Kiowa helicopter was given to the city in 2005. Since then, Newark has spent millions to refurbish, maintain and operate the aircraft.
In the last five years, Newark City Council has approved $1.3 million in maintenance, which includes prime and paint, as well as equipment such as the purchase of new rotor blades at the price tag of nearly $144,000.
NJ.com reported that Newark’s police helicopter looks new and is loaded with state-of-the-art equipment that can keep an eye on the crime-ridden streets below. However, the city has been riddled with budget woes that have forced layoffs and cutbacks in personnel and police staffing.
Justification of an aircraft that doesn’t leave the ground very often is hard when Newark is battling such financial hardships. Flight logs show that the helicopter is mostly on the ground, with 4-hour patrols on Friday and Saturday nights.
The city first approached the Defense Department about obtaining a helicopter in 2002 in its efforts to thwart a crime wave of stolen vehicles and carjackings. From high in the sky, this aircraft can follow criminals in runaway vehicles fleeing from the police. As the suspects run, they are unaware of the helicopter watching their every move and are caught by surprise when officers readily find them.
Some of the helicopter costs were covered with Homeland Security grants and drug forfeiture funds. However, most of it appears to have come out of the city’s budget.
According to NJ.com, a Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman said 577 helicopters have been distributed since 1996, many of them early model Kiowas identical to the aircraft received by Newark.
Anthony Ambrose, then chief of police and the city’s acting police director, said he knew when he requested a helicopter back in 2002 that even a free helicopter would cost the city money. They had figured out the numbers and the department already had an officer on the force with a commercial helicopter pilot’s license.
“A helicopter can reduce the crime rate 7 to 14 percent. The downside is the cost,” he said. “But if we only stopped carjackings, we would be getting our money’s worth.”
Still, experts state that maintenance expenses for older military aircraft are not insubstantial, even if the airframe is free.
“When you get military, some of those aircrafts have been flown hard,” said Daniel Schwarzbach, a senior Houston police officer and Executive Director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.