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2 medical copters removed from air

The FAA says two of the area's five medical helicopters must be grounded until a hard-to-find part is replaced.

Two bay-area medical helicopters have been grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration, which says failure of a part may have caused a similar hospital helicopter to crash last month in Texas.

The FAA on Monday ordered a mandatory grounding of certain BK117 American Eurocopters based on age and flight hours, pending replacement of the tension torsion strap that holds the helicopter's rotor blade to its hub.

One of Tampa General's two AeroMed helicopters is affected, as is one of three helicopters used by Bayflite for trauma centers at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

Both aircraft will be grounded for several weeks while awaiting parts, but officials said remaining helicopters will provide adequate coverage.

Karl Poulsen, vice president of aviation services for Rocky Mountain Helicopters, said the part's availability, not price, is the problem.

"The list cost for this item is $2,600, which is not passed on to the hospitals," said Poulsen, whose company leases helicopters, pilots and mechanics to Bayflite. "The problem is these parts have been so reliable, there's not much production. And there are only two manufacturers of this part in the world."

The BK117, which costs about $4-million, is made in Germany. About 400 are in use in the world.

To make up for the loss of aircraft locally, the three hospitals have reshuffled their remaining helicopters.

TGH's helicopter will be stationed at its Davis Islands campus. Bayflite will have helicopters based at Bayfront and at Tampa Bay Executive airport in Pasco County.

Before the groundings, TGH had a helicopter operating out of Sebring, and Bayflite had one in Sarasota. After repairs, all aircraft will be returned to their previous locations.

Lisa Patterson, a spokeswoman for Bayfront, said the remaining three helicopters will be able to adequately cover the Tampa Bay area.

"We always provide backup coverage for each other, and we've got processes in place to accommodate the groundings," Patterson said. "The typical goal is always to take the patient to the nearest trauma center."