My Turn: Jet debate should focus on Public Safety needs

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

The mission of the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS) is to preserve the public peace, protect life, property and wildlife resources - a daunting task. Alaska is by far the largest state in the union and the most reliant upon aviation in our daily lives. No state department relies as much upon aviation assets to accomplish its mission as Public Safety does.

Currently, the department operates 42 aircraft from fixed- wing airframes to helicopters. This includes two seven-passenger turboprop Beechcraft King Airs that were manufactured in 1978 and 1980. These aircraft are old, expensive to maintain, and are limited in range. Their replacement is inevitable. In planning for the long-term aviation needs of the state, we have weighed the pros and cons of various aircraft types for replacing our aged airframes. For the long haul, a jet appears to be the best solution.

Currently, 10 states use a jet for transportation: Alabama, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.

DPS is proposing a trial lease of a jet with an option to purchase. During this lease, we would evaluate whether the jet reduced overall operational costs to the state while providing greater safety and increased capabilities. Upon completion of the lease trial period, a King Air may be sold to offset the lease or purchase cost.

Most of the citizens of the state are "frequent fliers" and understand and appreciate aviation safety issues such as the capability of a jet to fly above weather systems and to have the range to reach alternative runways when the primary runway is socked in. Without doubt, jets are superior to the King Airs in terms of cruising altitude, speed, range, and reliability. These factors are reassuring to the pilots who are charged with safely transporting troopers, correctional officers, prisoners, and yes, the governor. Plainly said, a jet represents enhanced performance and safety over 25 year-old King Airs.

Much of the focus of the department's jet acquisition budget request has centered on the governor's use of DPS King Airs. Use by Gov. Murkowski is no different than that of his predecessor, and likely no different than his successor.

Gov. Murkowski's use of department planes over the past two years has been 543.3 hours (40 percent of total King Air hours); department use of the same aircraft has been 829.1 hours. The previous governor's use for 2001-2002 was 771.4 hours (46 percent of total King Air hours) with the department use during that time at 905.5. The Governor's Office budget provides funding for flight hours used.

There has been public discussion suggesting that a jet would have an inappropriately luxurious interior. To the contrary, DPS King Airs are spartan. The interior of any jet procured would likewise be focused on maximum use of seating, not amenities, and would not be configured as an "executive aircraft" as is seen on the homepages for the aircraft manufacturers.

The department will use the jet aircraft for its mission needs, including transport of prisoners both in-state and to destinations in the Lower 48. With a jet aircraft, this will be accomplished more safely and cost-effectively. A jet will reduce the time to transport prisoners to Arizona by half, thereby allowing a round trip in one day instead of two. We would be able to move emergency personnel to Dutch Harbor or Nome in half the time when moments may count in saving lives or averting a disaster.

The aviation needs of DPS will not diminish in the foreseeable future. The need to replace aging aircraft is unavoidable. It only makes sense to upgrade our capabilities at the same time.

• Bill Tandeske is the commissioner for the Department of Public Safety. Prior to his appointment as commissioner he served as an Alaska State Trooper for 26 years.

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