With two planes on the auction block, the Alaska Wildlife Troopers' Aircraft Section fleet continues to shrink along with the state budget.
The Department of Public Safety has listed the two planes -- a 1980 Beechcraft King Air 200 previously used for high-seas fisheries enforcement and transporting dignitaries, and a 2010 Top Cub -- at the government auction site govdeals.com.
"We need aircraft across the state for a variety of reasons," said wildlife Trooper Maj. Bernard Chastain, "but we do have diminishing funding across the board, across the (Department of Public Safety). It's about a 15 percent reduction in the last two years. That diminishing funding is making us evaluate the benefits of our air assets everyday."
The larger King Air plane went on sale Feb. 2 on the online government marketplace. Two bidders have already increased the starting bid of $500,000 by $51,000, and there's still a month left before bidding closes.
Troopers say the King Air, purchased by the public safety department in the 1990s, has flown 14,216 hours. Governors have used the King Air, which can carry nine passengers and two crew members, to fly throughout Alaska.
Gov. Bill Walker won't lose his air support, however. He uses a newer King Air 350 to fly to Juneau and elsewhere; troopers use it to fly to crime scenes in the Bush.
The older King Air saw less use as a wildlife enforcement asset as state fisheries changed, Chastain said. The incentive for fishermen to break the law during high-seas fisheries fell as derby-style fishing periods shifted to more evenly spaced seasons, he said.
The troopers' Top Cub was just purchased several years ago, but the plane doesn't conform to the rest of the aircraft section's fleet of small planes. Specific modifications on the Top Cub that require the regular changing of parts makes the plane more expensive to keep. "It's an oddball," Chastain said.
"It's cheaper for us to maintain a fleet of similar aircraft than it is to have different aircraft with different parts and requirements," he said.
Stationed in Anchorage, the small plane has flown 197 hours; it's in like-new condition, according to its auction posting. Still, no one had put up the starting bid of $50,000 as of Thursday.
More aircraft may be sold or stored as lawmakers further slash state department budgets during the legislative session, Chastain said.
Walker's amended budget allocates about $4.4 million to the troopers' Aircraft Section for the coming year. That amount is similar to its budget for 2016. The section originally requested an additional $300,000 for fuel in 2017. But Chastain said the request was no longer justifiable and was removed as the price of fuel plummeted after officials drew up cost projections.
Cuts grounded a DPS search-and-rescue helicopter last year. Troopers removed the blades and engine from their Fairbanks-based helicopter, a heavily equipped American Eurocopter A-Star. The dismantled helicopter is now stored in Anchorage.
Chastain said his department will soon decide whether to sell the helicopter.
The remaining A-Star, based in Anchorage, could also be removed from operation.
"It's a possibility," Chastain said. "We can't make a decision until we know what we're getting from the Legislature."
"I anticipate as budgets are reduced and we have to live within them that we will be reducing our aircraft numbers and reducing the service that we provide to the state," he said.
Troopers reported Wednesday the rescue helicopter was integral in finding a lost Eagle River hiker. Search dogs lost the scent of 23-year-old David Gonzalez while tracking up a mountain trail. Anchorage police then called upon state troopers, who spotted Gonzalez from the air using the helicopter.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the Beechcraft King Air had flown 14,216 miles. Rather, it has flown 14,216 hours.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing