January - February 2003
What It Takes To Manage A Law Enforcement Aviation Unit
Unit Managers Set The Tone For Safety
Trip Wires, Poison Oak & Rattlesnakes
Ready, Willing and Able Escambia County Sheriff’s Office
San Diego Move Aerial Support Teams
What It Takes To Manage A Law Enforcement Aviation Unit:
Leading the skies of Anytown USA
by Captain Don Roby, Baltimore County Police Department
Over the past several years, much has been written about operating your aviation unit in a culture that espouses safety. We constantly talk about operating within the unit SOP’s, within the aircraft limits, having a safety program, crewmember training, etc. However, not much is written or discussed regarding getting back to the basics of good aviation unit management and how it leads to safer aviation units. Management is the key to a safe aviation unit. It is just as important as having a safety program, quality training and everything else that makes a program safe.
Like most of the members of this association, I routinely review accident and incident reports involving law enforcement aviation units. While reviewing the accidents, we always seem to see the same things. The accident was caused by "pilot error", "a training accident", or "a maintenance error." How many times have you read the NTSB accident reports or the APSA website and wondered: "Where was management when this was going on?" Truly, there are times when you have to ask yourself how a particular pilot was allowed to stay in a unit, how could this training mission end up like this and why did the maintenance error occur?
The bottom line is that management is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the unit. As such, it is management’s primary responsibility to ensure that the law enforcement aviation unit is managed properly. In this article, I would like to explore what it takes to manage a law enforcement aviation unit.
Commitment from the Top
Right off the top, it takes the commitment of the Chief, Commissioner, Director, Sheriff or whoever is the leader of the law enforcement organization. Without this commitment, a program is doomed to fail. If the Chief does not have the commitment, an understanding of the importance of law enforcement aviation or a basic understanding of the intricacies of what it takes to operate your unit, your job as the unit manager is nearly impossible to accomplish. Chiefs, Commissioners, Sheriffs, and others need to be educated on just how different aviation is from the rest of the policing functions within a law enforcement agency. As such, you, as the unit manager, must take the time to educate your bosses on this issue.
Too often, aviation units are treated no different than patrol, traffic or other units within the law enforcement agency. Police leaders often lack the understanding of how specialized aviation is and they tend to lump it in with all the other units. Imagine how much easier your job, as the unit manager would be if your boss understood aviation. Working for an executive level police manager that really understands what it takes to efficiently and effectively run an aviation unit is a contributing factor in your ability to succeed as an aviation unit manager. Additionally, if your boss understood exactly what it takes to manage your unit, you would spend less time constantly explaining things, and more time properly leading your unit.
What Do I Need to Do to Lead My Unit?
Just as important as having your chief, sheriff or commissioners support, you must be committed to managing your aviation unit to the best of your ability. There is too much at stake to do anything less. Too often, unit managers come and go at frequent intervals. By the time he or she is starting to understand what it takes to lead an aviation unit, they are transferred or promoted out of the unit. Therefore, as an aviation unit manager, you should try to learn your job as quickly as possible and leave the unit better off when you leave than when you arrived. Take advantage of APSA’s Regional Safety Seminars and attend the Unit Manager’s Course at the National Conference. This is essential if you are to properly manage a complicated unit like aviation. In addition, you are sending the right message to your subordinates in that you care about the unit, you are interested in them, and you want to learn how to do things right.
But really, what does it take for me lead my unit? In short it takes excellent management skills and attention to the following:
- Record Keeping Skills
- Budget and Finance Skills
- Personnel Issues
- Development of Quality SOP’s
- Effective Aviation Safety Program
- Quality Training Program
- Excellent Aircraft Maintenance Program
The above is the "complete package" that an aviation unit manager must possess to effectively lead his or her unit. Let’s take a moment to discuss each of the components of an effective aviation unit manager.
Record Keeping Skills
No other aspect of managing an aviation unit is more important than the records that we keep. Records are the key to unlocking the past and predicting the future of your unit. In addition, the quality and quantity of your record keeping skills will either hurt or help your unit in the time of a crisis. By this, I am referring to aircraft mishaps or incidents, internal affairs investigations and internal or external political pressures.
In an industry that is awash with paperwork, we always ask ourselves why we need more. For our purposes, we need records for the survival of the unit, legal requirements and business requirements.
Simply stated, an aviation unit cannot survive without records. The leadership of a law enforcement agency will demand records to justify the expense of the unit and to measure performance.
As mentioned, there are "legal requirements" for the operation of aircraft. By this, I am referring to the following:
- What does the FAA mandate?
- What are the requirements to operate under the Federal Aviation Regulations for Part 91 or Part 135?
- What is mandated to operate under Public Use?
- How can I reveal compliance with the Department of Defense 1133 program?
An aviation manager must take the time to know the answers to the above questions and assure that the appropriate records are being captured for compliance reasons. Also mentioned was the issue of "business requirements" for operating a law enforcement aviation unit. Operational and maintenance requirements and departmental statistics are routinely described as the business requirements of a law enforcement aviation unit.
Operational requirements are records that prove compliance with the following:
- Standard Operating Procedures
- Unit Operations Manual
- Rules and Regulations
General Orders Maintenance requirements are records that prove compliance with the following:
- Manufacturer’s Maintenance Requirements
- Military Maintenance Standards
- ICAP Maintenance Program
- FAA Issued Airworthiness Directives
- Manufacturer’s Technical Bulletins
Department statistics are records that are used to measure performance, assist in the preparation of the budget and assist in marketing the unit. The statistics routinely include the following:
- Monthly Activity Reports
- Training Records
- Pilot Records
- Tactical Flight Officer/Observer Records
- Medical Records of Personnel
- Aircraft Records
- Unit Flight Time Records
- FAA and Unit Qualifications
- Pilot Ratings and Designations
- Pilot Status Reports
- Unit Logs
- Special Data Input Reports
- IFR Flight Plans
- Flight Following Reports
- Weather Briefing Reports
- Weight and Balance Reports
- Significant Event Reports
- Noise Complaint Reports
- Unit Safety Report
- Fuel Storage Reports
- Administrative Investigation Reports
The capturing of data and information is vital to the successful operation of any aviation unit. Without information, managers cannot survive, nor can the unit.
Budget and Finance Skills
Never far from any manager’s mind is the fiscal part of doing our job. An effective unit manager must have the skills to plan, manage and forecast the unit’s budget. There are many units that struggle each year to have sufficient funds to operate. This is not anything new to aviation. If we examine our agency’s budget, we are likely to find that aviation is one of the most expensive units within the agency. In fact, after personnel and fleet expenditures, aviation is normally the next most expensive line item within your agency. As a unit manager, you must take the necessary steps to ensure the fiscal health of the unit.
Some recommendations are:
- Take the time to learn the proper budget procedures of your agency. Do not take shortcuts or circumvent the system.
- Use good statistics to support your budget requests.
- Start preparing your budget requests early. Take your time and submit a quality product.
- Use solid projections to request funding for overhauls, replacement items, etc.
- Use quality justifications for any requested increases and new or replacement equipment.
- Do not forget that over time, items cost more to purchase. Include projected increases in your budget requests.
- Take the time to educate your command staff and budget analyst on your operation.
- Make your unit a high priority within your department.
- Market your unit both internally and externally.
- Never lie to your budget analyst.
- Do not intentionally "low ball" your budget requests. (This may work once, but rarely twice)
- Always know the fiscal condition of the unit. Are you on track to spend all your funds, or are you overspending your allocated funds? Keep your budget analyst and superior informed of any problems ahead of time.
- Maintain the professionalism of your unit at all times.
- Constantly strive to operate at maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
- Keep patrol officers one of your main supporters. They will sell the importance of aviation to your chief, sheriff, commissioner or director.
By having a properly prepared and supported budget, the unit will be appropriately funded for maintenance, fuel, oil, training, equipment, etc. This in turn will go a long way in ensuring that your unit is safe, effective and efficient.
The selection, retention and supervision of aviation personnel are also important elements in your success as an aviation unit manager. There is no doubt that the selection of personnel to fill vacancies within a unit is a stressful and difficult job. If it is mishandled, lacks integrity, is unfair or the wrong person is selected, it could lead to grievances or litigation. The position of pilots and observers is often one of the most sought after jobs within a law enforcement agency. Often, these jobs offer the employee incentives to hold these positions. Therefore, it can be extremely competitive for departmental members who are applying for these positions.
As the unit manager, you will be tasked with deciding who is assigned to your unit. A few simple things can greatly assist you in making sure that this is accomplished in a fair and equitable manner and that the most qualified person gets the position.
Among them are:
- Work with your agency’s personnel section to develop a job description for the positions you wish to fill.
- Use an established department standard for the selection process. Do not deviate from the personnel selection standard simply because aviation is so "specialized."
- Require a resume, writing samples and written statement as to why they wish to transfer to your unit.
- Build into the process a flight component. This will allow you to gauge an applicant’s susceptibility to motion sickness.
- Review the applicant’s past performance records.
- Review the applicant’s past motor vehicle accident records.
- Require a formal interview of the applicant using established questions with benchmark responses.
- Include other unit members as part of the interview board.
- Establish an eligibility list for the unit for pilots and observers.
- Assure that there is a probationary period for new personnel. Also include that the probationary employee is assessed on a frequent basis.
Although the above list is not all-inclusive, it provides you with recommendations to assist you in assigning personnel to your unit. Just as important in choosing new personnel for the unit, is the issue of retaining those who are assigned to the unit.
As with any industry, we are not immune to personnel joining our ranks, obtaining experience and leaving for "greener pastures". As the unit manager, we have to take the necessary steps to keep these valuable employees and protect the agency’s investment in training, experience and knowledge that these employees have. Many agencies are now requiring that new pilots sign contracts stipulating that the employee will remain with the department for a period of time to protect the department’s investment. In addition, agencies are placing pilots in separate pay classes and job descriptions to differentiate them from other personnel. This allows the employee to be paid a higher salary and receive other benefits. Some agencies are also doing the same for observers. This type of incentive assists agencies in retaining pilots and observers.
Finally, the overall supervision of unit personnel is another important element of the unit manager’s job. Law enforcement aviation unit personnel consist of individuals with different personalities, lifestyles, needs, career goals, skills and abilities. Unit managers must be cognizant of this and take the necessary steps to know their personnel and how to manage them.
The old adage that law enforcement aviation units are made up of Type A personnel may or may not be true. But without a doubt, managing the personnel assigned to aviation is quite different than managing personnel that are assigned to a patrol shift. The job of a pilot or observer is different than the job of a patrol officer. The unit manager must realize this and adjust his or her management and supervisory style to this.
In addition, your expectations of your personnel must also be adjusted. No longer will you be gauging your employee’s performance on the number of arrests, traffic citations and case clearances. Instead, your employees performance will be based on their ability to fly specific aircraft, knowledge of aircraft operating limitations, knowledge of the FAR’s, operation of on-board systems, listening to multiple radios, reading a map from the air, etc. The unit manager must realize the specific differences in job functions and responsibilities of aviation unit personnel to be effective.
Use of SOP’s
The use of standard operating procedures is nothing new to law enforcement agencies. In fact, if we check our own agencies we will probably discover that there are volumes of standard operating procedures, general orders, special orders, rules and regulations and other such documents. Aviation units should be no different. To operate multimillion-dollar aircraft without standards is a recipe for disaster. In addition, without standards there is no way to hold our employees accountable for their actions.
Standard operating procedures for an aviation unit should have at a minimum the following:
- Mission statement with language that identifies under whose authority the SOP is written.
- A section that deals with the overall administration of the unit’s organization, personnel duties and responsibilities, facilities, scheduling, and equipment and miscellaneous issues.
- A section that covers unit safety. It should cover operational hazards and incidents, medical issues and establish a safety officer for the unit.
- A section that covers the training of personnel. This section should include the establishment of a training objective for the unit, training budget, responsibilities for CFI’s, mandates for training plans for each employee, procedures for initial, recurrent and transition training and policies for the use of departmental aircraft.
- A section that covers the general operating procedures for the unit. This includes request for air support, mission priorities and response protocols, procedures for flights leaving the jurisdiction, minimum crew requirements, flight crew responsibilities, pre-flight responsibilities, ground handling, post flight responsibilities, activity reporting, procedures for servicing aircraft and other miscellaneous issues.
- A section for fixed wing operations. This should include flight limitations, prisoner transportation issues and uniforms and equipment.
- A section for helicopter operations. This should include flight limitations, uniform and equipment issues, search light operations, FLIR operations, over-water operations, ground safety, off-airport landing procedures, use of dual controls and vehicle pursuit responsibilities.
- A section for mishaps or incidents. This should include procedures for all unit members to follow in the event of a mishap/incident, definitions, contact numbers, mishap checklists and individual responsibilities.
- A section for maintenance. This should include a statement regarding how departmental aircraft will be maintained, definitions, responsibilities for the unit commander, supervisor, pilots and mechanics or maintenance personnel.
The development of unit SOP’s is a daunting, but necessary task. The unit commander must assure that the unit operates within a set standard to ensure safety and accountability. Also, the unit commander and unit members must review SOP’s on a regular basis to ensure relevancy, accuracy and compliance.
To develop and implement an effective safety program lies right within your unit. Put together a committee of unit members, department safety officer, unit supervisor and yourself to develop your safety program. Additionally, APSA has an excellent Safety Coordinator who is a wealth of information. Finally, contact other units to receive a copy of their safety program.
Quality Training Program
Training aviation personnel comes in many forms. This includes initial flight training, recurrent training, transition training, observer training, safety training, etc. The unit manager must take the necessary steps to develop and implement an effective training program for the unit.
The first step is to establish training objectives, unit needs and develop a training philosophy for the unit. The unit commander will need to identify tasks, outline conditions and establish training standards.
Once the objectives and standards are developed the training program should:
- Integrate safety into the aviation program.
- Validate the training program of the unit.
- Be documented and retained by the unit commander.
- Reviewed and updated regularly.
- Establish the priority of training over the priority of a mission.
Training can be conducted in-house or by outside vendors. Which one you use is based on what resources you have within your unit, what you hope to accomplish and whether you can handle the training yourself. One thing is clear, whether you train in-house or not, it must be a coordinated effort, properly planned and implemented, adequately funded and appropriately documented.
Your training program, or the lack of a training program, may come under scrutiny if you suffer an accident or mishap, take disciplinary measures against an employee for non-performance, or try to insure your aircraft. It is imperative that your unit has a written training syllabus for all facets of training, that all training is documented and filed, and that you, as the commander, take training seriously.
Excellent Aircraft Maintenance
The final element in managing your unit is your approach to maintenance. Many times aircraft maintenance issues are very confusing. Some law enforcement leaders tend to view aircraft maintenance no differently than vehicle fleet maintenance. If a vehicle is due for maintenance and we let it go another 1,000 miles before it’s done, what’s the harm? It’s just an oil change. This may be acceptable for vehicles, but not for aircraft. If the fleet vehicle breaks down, all we do is pull it to the curb and call for a tow truck. However, if the aircraft breaks down at 900 feet, there is no pulling to the curb. The aircraft and aircrew are coming down to the ground.
Most unit managers are not maintenance experts. However, we have the experts working for us in our hangar. Whether you employ your own mechanics or contract out maintenance, these individuals must be consulted on maintenance issues. As I mentioned early in this article, you, as the unit manager, have the final say on the airworthiness of your fleet. Therefore, you need to have an understanding of what it takes to maintain an aircraft or a fleet of aircraft. Here are a
- Get to know your maintenance personnel and discuss maintenance issues.
- Walk the floor of the hangar and watch them work on the aircraft.
- Ask questions about what they are doing.
- Take the time and work next to your mechanic while he or she performs a scheduled interval maintenance on the aircraft. This will provide you with an excellent opportunity to see what’s involved in maintaining your aircraft.
- If possible, designate a maintenance officer in the unit. This officer can handle all the maintenance issues and report directly to you.
- Get to know your aircraft manufacturer’s technical representative. These individuals are a wealth of information and are always willing to assist.
- Properly fund for your maintenance needs.
- Explore the feasibility of computerizing all your maintenance records. This is extremely helpful when it comes time to track costs, project overhauls, reorder parts, conduct inventory, etc.
- Never take shortcuts or skimp on maintenance. You may think that you are saving money, but it will cost you much more in the long run.
- If you are flying military surplus aircraft, maintain them to a safe standard. This may be the military standard, Intergovernmental Committee for Aviation Policy (ICAP) standard or a custom designed maintenance program.
Maintaining aircraft is an expensive proposition and one that must be taken seriously, properly planned and executed. Aircraft are complicated machines and are designed to be maintained at specific intervals. These intervals were developed after much research and design and approved by the FAA or, in some cases, the military. As the unit manager, you must assure that appropriately trained individuals properly maintain them.
Unit Management Is Like A Puzzle
The management of an aviation unit is the most important element in the unit’s ability to succeed. Put the wrong person in the unit, and the unit will fail. Unit management is like a puzzle. In order to understand what has to be done, you have to put all the pieces together. Once that happens, there is a clear picture of what it takes to operate an effective unit.
No one ever said that managing an aviation unit was easy. It is difficult, trying, and yes, rewarding. Although leading an aviation unit is very different than leading a patrol shift, it can be done. Just as you prepared yourself for promotion and leadership within your agency, you can prepare yourself to lead an aviation unit. Many men and women have come and gone before you, and many more will come and go after you leave your unit. The key to success is to learn the job and learn it well. There is so much at stake when your personnel take to the air that you cannot afford to do otherwise. Not only are your personnel at risk, but also the public, your agency and you.
The most rewarding thing that can happen to you is that when you leave your unit, it is in much better condition than when you arrived. This may come in the form of additional flight hours, better equipment, new aircraft or increased efficiency. The last thing you want is for the unit to regress under your command. Worse yet, because of poor unit management, many units have been disbanded, aircraft sold, and officers returned to patrol duties.
The Airborne Public Safety Association offers several courses for unit managers at the National Conference each summer. This includes the Unit Manager’s Course and the Command Safety Course. Unit managers and experts in the field teach these courses. It is an excellent opportunity for new managers to learn the important elements of managing a law enforcement aviation unit and network with other unit managers who are in the same position as themselves.
Unit Managers Set The Tone For Safety
by Jay Fuller, APSA Safety Coordinator
The police crew had checked weather continuously during the morning. Local conditions were below unit flight minimums but forecast to get better, yet improvement had been slow at best. The mission was to participate in an ongoing search at a rural location 40 miles west of the aviation unit home base. Actual weather in the search area was reasonable, however, with a VFR-only aircraft and crew, getting there was the problem.
Due to the high profile nature of the search, government officials had been bugging the police hierarchy who had in turn made repeated inquiries of the aviation unit about when an aircraft would be dispatched to assist in the search. These inquiries came more frequently and with greater emphasis as the morning went on. Finally, shortly after noon, the call came from police headquarters "You’re an emergency response organization, launch!"
The unit chief, training officer and assigned crew took one last look at the reported weather and made some phone calls to stations along the route. Indications were that conditions improved 25 miles to the west. Being very familiar with the immediate area, the decision was made. They could "handle it". The aircraft took off at 1 p.m. Not long after, word was received of an aircraft crash.
During investigation, clouds in the area were reported as less than 200 feet above the ground, with considerable scud in between and prevailing visibility no more than half of a mile. Observers described a low flying helicopter "not more than 100 feet above the ground" disappearing into a scud layer then re-emerging in a steep bank before impacting terrain. There were no survivors.
Another police crew launched for a night patrol mission. Fully outfitted with Nomex flight suit and gloves, military style boots, flight helmets and night vision goggles, they were prepared for a wide variety of situations. Soon after take off and establishing contact with ground units, they were informed of a pursuit that had just cropped up in another part of the city.
On scene in minutes, the crew established radio contact with ground officers and joined in the search for the perpetrator who was now on foot. With their "hair on fire", the crew aggressively became involved, occasionally descending to "very low" altitude in order to highlight suspected hiding areas with their SX-9 and possibly flush the individual. After 40 minutes of operational time, ground units located the suspect and took him into custody.
Once on the ground at the end of their scheduled patrol, the crew was asked to visit the duty supervisor in his office. After commending them on their quick response and effectiveness, the supervisor stated he was aware of their excursions to near ground level and pointedly asked what unit minimum altitudes were. He explained that these rules served a purpose, "An altitude as little as 100 feet AGL will keep an aircraft above the vast majority of wires and obstructions and there is normally little or no increase in search effectiveness below that. Remember our ops standards and stick to them; we’re not going to have an effective aviation unit if we bend our airframes and injure the crews. The next time we have this talk, I’ll be seriously on your case. Otherwise, keep up the good work."
The decision making and performance of line aircrew or maintenance are where the rubber meets the road; actions taken at this level are the final cause or prevention of aircraft accidents. However, they are really only links in the chain. The influence of aviation unit management, and higher agency bureaucracy above that, cannot be over-emphasized.
Unit management provides routine supervision of aviation missions and maintenance work. It creates, maintains and enforces unit standards. This includes aircrew currency, maintenance and aircrew training, and operational minimums. They fight for and procure essential aircraft equipment, mission equipment and crew items. Management is a liaison between the unit and supported organizations, ensuring that aviation capabilities and limitations are understood by everyone and that requirements placed on the unit are realistic.
The agency hierarchy defers to aircrew judgment in the best of circumstances and places no undo pressure on aviation under the worst of circumstances. They provide the significant financial backing for necessary aviation equipment and training. In this same vein, they don’t make cost comparisons between aviation and other law enforcement personnel and vehicle combinations. They understand that aviation is a significant force multiplier providing capabilities not available from other operational resources. They back their aviation unit when outside users and customers make unreasonable demands.
Most importantly, both management and hierarchy, by taking safety issues seriously themselves and by making all essential efforts and expenditures, set the tone for flight operations. This establishes the safety "culture" within the organization which guides the line decision making and performance mentioned above.
This is not an idealized list. All the above statements refer to bona-fide responsibilities of management for law enforcement aviation units. Low altitude flying, lots of take-offs and landings, tactical operations, mission focus, high task saturation–and throw in a little night and/or weather–and you see how our aircrews are routinely operating in the highest risk aviation environment possible.
Further, our aircrews generally possess a mission-oriented and "can’t happen to me" attitude that hinders avoidance of hazardous situations. In fact, police pilots often seek these circumstances out. For all these reasons, serious management efforts are critical and necessary to safe law enforcement flying operations; even more so than in other segments of professional aviation. Safety is the responsibility of everyone, not the least of which is unit management.
Trip Wires, Poison Oak & Rattlesnakes
By Sergeant Bret Uhlich
Ventura County Sheriff’s Department
Southern California experienced a record lack of rainfall in 2002. This made the chances of finding marijuana in the Los Padres National Forest either easier or harder, depending on which side of the fence you sat on. The normal green-colored hues of the forest had long since faded to an ugly brown color making the prospects of spotting the rich emerald green of marijuana plants easier. The plots of illicit plants would now stand out like an oasis in the desert. Then again, the distinct lack of water in the canyons normally used by "gardeners" would make the likelihood of growing marijuana a near impossibility.
Narcotics detectives from the Ventura County Sheriff Department were surprised when Captain Ray Gould from the U.S. Forest Service contacted us and said they spotted several thousand marijuana plants by helicopter growing in the Los Padres National Forest, which is located above the City of Ojai. Ray estimated there were 10,000 to 15,000 marijuana plants growing in several canyons and he wanted our assistance in surveilling the sites.
Our operation began in late September with various planning and strategy meetings. The ultimate goal of both agencies was to make as many arrests as possible of suspects tending these plots of marijuana. These meetings also included the pilots and crew chiefs from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit since the rugged terrain and steep canyons necessitated the use of air support. We felt that helicopters could give us the edge in locating the suspects responsible for the cultivations. At the same time, we recognized they would have to be used very diligently since their noise and mere presence could cause the suspects to flee and abandon the sites.
Our agency currently has several types of helicopters assigned to our aviation unit. They range from our new Bell 205B (Copter 8) to our patrol and surveillance workhorse, a McDonnell Douglas 530F (Copter 4). Given the stealth factor needed, the MD-530F was chosen as the primary ship to conduct occasional nighttime aerial surveillances of the sites. Copter 4 is well fitted for this type of mission, not only because it is quieter, but the FLIR system and NVG equipment used by the pilot and crew chief make it ideal for locating light and heat sources. Our plan was to have Copter 4 fly over the sites at night in an attempt to locate the campsites used by the suspects. We knew from past experience that these growers use campfires, lanterns and flashlights. Hopefully the illumination from these sources would stand out like a signal flare against the dark background of the forest. Several night flights were conducted, but unfortunately no lights or campfires were spotted.
We also completed several flights over the cultivation sites during daylight hours to monitor the progress of the growing plants, especially as it became closer to harvest time. Our department, along with the U.S. Forest Service, did not want the plants harvested by the growers before
we could seize them. These flights were completed utilizing our primary search and rescue ship, a military surplus Bell UH-1H (Copter 6). These missions were conducted with four passengers consisting of law enforcement personnel from the U.S. Forest Service and narcotics detectives from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Being covert was impossible using this helicopter, but to minimize the noise, we maintained a high altitude and only made one pass per mission.
During one of these flights, pilot David Nadon (a former narcotics detective) noticed the plants were turning yellow in color, an indication they were maturing and close to being harvested. Having the keen eye of a pilot, he also noticed that some of the plants were also in the process of being cut down by the suspects. Our mission quickly changed from a surveillance operation into developing a plan to eradicate the cultivation sites.
A total of seven large sites had been spotted growing in several valleys within the forest. Removing the plants would be the easy part. Getting access to the remote and rugged canyons and then quietly sneaking up on the growers without being detected would be the hardest part of the operation. The areas where the cultivation sites were located was very rough, steep terrain choked with thick brush, poison oak, ticks and the occasional rattlesnake.
The contour of the terrain combined with temperatures near 100 degrees made hiking all of the way into the plots a very strenuous and dangerous proposition. Helicopter insertion seemed the best option, not that the use of helicopters was any less dangerous. The environment, high air temperatures and operating in mountainous terrain with altitudes above 5,000 feet posed their own risks for the pilots. The hot, thin air would put the helicopters at the edge of their performance envelope and conducting hover operations around confined areas made the potential very high for main and tail rotor strikes.
The first location selected for eradication was a plot located in the Little Mutah Creek area. Six of us loaded up in Copter 6, piloted by David Nadon, who flew us to the general area of the cultivation. He was we were standing. As we froze in our tracks, the snake was no where to be
seen. It was hidden among the oak leaves scattered on the ground.
We carefully skirted the area and continued on with our chase. Our efforts to view the fleeing suspect were thwarted by the thick vegetation lining the bottom of the creek. Bob and I followed the trail for a short distance but the suspect had disappeared into the forest and was not seen again.
The next day, while removing the plants from this site, we found a note left by the suspect we had previously chased. The note was written in Spanish and the tone of the writer, based upon all the expletive language he used, suggested he was a little angry with us for taking his plants. The author also signed the letter "Atenta mente el desaparesido", which loosely translated means "the one who disappeared".
Over the next week, six marijuana cultivation sites containing approximately 11,000 plants were eradicated from the Los Padres National Forest and four more suspects were arrested. The mission was a complete success with a total of six individuals arrested for the cultivation of marijuana. At the time of this article, four of the individuals have already pled guilty and are facing sentencing.
The successful end of this case is a tribute to the cooperative efforts of numerous individuals and several law enforcement units. Our efforts, in conjunction with the hard work of law enforcement personnel from the Los Padres National Forest, was even more rewarding given that no major injuries occurred during the entire operation.
The use of helicopters, along with the courage and skills of our pilots and crew chiefs, proved an invaluable resource which ultimately played a major role in the apprehension of the suspects and the eradication of thousands of marijuana plants.
Ready, Willing and Able
Escambia County Sheriff’s Office
By Rhonda Ray, Public Affairs Coordinator, ECSO
It’s a cool morning in April, and a desperate search is underway in the Florida Panhandle to locate four missing hunters. The group, ranging between the ages of 15 and 22, has been missing since the previous day when they entered into a swamp while hunting wild hogs. When the group fails to return home, concerned family members report them missing and a search party is organized.
Area K-9 units are called in to help and the four hunters are soon located; however, the rescue is far from over. Having located the hunters more than two miles into the snake-infested swamp, the question of how to get out still remains. Soon the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office helicopter is hovering overhead, and within minutes, is able to guide the group to a river where area fishermen are waiting in a boat to take them to safety.
Since Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby established the Airborne Law Enforcement Unit in 2001, stories of rescues such as this are becoming more and more common. The unit, also known as the ABLE Unit, has proven to be a valuable asset to the daily operation of the ECSO. The unit is composed of two pilots and two observers, with all four ABLE team members having a commercial pilot’s license. Both pilots were selected based on their prior military experience and flight hours, each having logged more than 5,000 flight hours. In addition, three Escambia County Sheriff’s Deputies are assigned to the unit as part-time observers. All observers are Florida certified law enforcement officers.
While the primary focus of the ABLE Unit is assisting patrol deputies, the unit serves in a variety of other functions. The unique geography of the Gulf Coast provides numerous year-round uses for ABLE. During the summer and early fall months, the unit focuses largely on marijuana eradication efforts. From 1,000 feet above, the trained eye can spot anything from a single marijuana plant growing next to a house to a group of plants in a thickly wooded pine forest. In 2002 alone, the unit helped to eradicate more than 1,300 marijuana plants in Escambia County and the surrounding area.
The unit also assists beach lifeguards by conducting surveillances of surf conditions and warning swimmers of dangerous rip currents and the presence of sharks. The holiday shopping season keeps the team busy assisting patrol deputies while watching for suspicious activity in mall parking lots and more heavily populated areas.
Recently, Escambia County’s ABLE Unit has partnered with Escambia Search And Rescue (ESAR) in Project Lifesaver. The program utilizes electronic wristbands (similar to the transmitters used in wildlife tracking) to help locate those who are subject to wandering from their familiar surroundings and becoming lost. These may include adults suffering from Alzheimer’s or children diagnosed with Down’s syndrome or autism. Should a person become lost, portable handheld receiving antennas on the helicopter and on the ground are adjusted to pick up the specified transmitter frequency assigned to the person who is missing. The equipment can reduce search time to a matter of minutes (average air time 15-20 minutes) instead of hours, days, or even weeks, therefore increasing the chances of survival.
When time counts, the ABLE unit can be counted on. On June 27 of last year, the unit assisted the Pensacola Beach Fire Department in a daring nighttime search and rescue which involved a man whose personal watercraft had stalled, leaving him stranded in a high-traffic waterway.
Without any lights, the stranded jet skier was in danger of being hit by other boaters. Using its 30-million candlepower searchlight, the ABLE Unit managed to locate and illuminate the jet skier until a Pensacola Beach Fire Department rescue crew could tow him safely to shore.
Even when the ABLE team isn’t assisting patrol, searching for illegal narcotics or performing rescue operations, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Training is crucial to the success of the operation as is routine maintenance of the equipment.
Recent training involved a mock prison escape in the northern end of the county in which the ABLE Unit was "on-scene" within 15 minutes and had located the "fugitive" within one minute of arriving on scene. The unit also keeps busy with public appearances at school functions and other community related events.
All of these services come with minimal expense to the county, as most of the equipment purchased was done so through grants or donations from area businesses. This equipment includes: four sets of ANVIS-9 night vision goggles, able to magnify light up to 10,000 times; a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) System which detects heat (such as body heat or that from a car engine); a Global Positioning System (GPS); and a 30-million candlepower searchlight. The two OH-58 helicopters themselves were of minimal cost: one was donated by the Florida Highway Patrol and the second one was purchased for less than $80,000.
For patrol deputies, having an "eye in the sky" can reduce time spent trying to locate fleeing criminals. To the general population, this means public safety is increased in that the need for high-speed pursuits is virtually eliminated.
Most importantly, for the criminal element, it means you can run but you can’t hide. Indeed, when a need arises in our neck of the woods, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office is ready, willing and ABLE!
San Diego Move Aerial Support Teams Into One Home
By Jon Goldin, NYPD
The members of the San Diego County’s Air Support To Regional Enforcement Agencies (ASTREA) Unit have waited 30 years for the opening of their new hangar and office facility. Housed in a temporary structure from the training days of World War II, the unit had outgrown their quarters with insufficient hangars and office space.
When the aviation unit began operations in 1972 with three Bell 47Gs at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, the helicopters were left unsheltered and vulnerable on the flight line. As the unit moved forward with MD500Ds in the 1980s, the overall facility had still not seen any improvements. Maintenance was done in hangars so small the blades had to be removed. It was always too hot in the summer and too cold during the winter, making for an uncomfortable work environment.
In 1999, plans were drawn up and approved for a modern hangar and office to be built to house several of the department’s special services, including Search and Rescue (SAR), Emergency Planning, Canine, Law Enforcement Reserves, the Special Enforcement Detail (SWAT), and the Bomb/Arson Squad.
Since completion, all of these specialized response units have been headquartered under the same roof for the first time. The new facility is also base to a California Division of Forestry (CDF) firefighting helicopter.
Every member has his own desk, computer and phone line. A full kitchen and conference room, that can double as an Emergency Operations Center, are part of the office space enhancements. Separate rooms for the storage of special equipment have been established. Maintenance is now done in a state of the art, climate-controlled hangar bay. The maintenance bay and machine shop is a spacious 5,000 square feet with a sturdy ceiling hoist, which is separate from the main hangar.
The main hangar is 15,000 square feet with room to hold all six of the unit’s MD500s (4 Ds, 1E and 1F) along with their Cessna. A sprinkler system covers both the offices and hangar space. Fueling is done through three points along the flight line hooked into a 32,000-gallon computer controlled auto-filtered fuel system.
Ground was broken in April of 2000 and completed in August of 2002. In true Southern California style and under the command of Captain George Kneeshaw, ASTREA invited other surrounding aviation units to attend the official opening celebration on October 23. The turnout was incredible as federal, state, county and municipal air units showed up, some from hundreds of miles away.
While the new hangar facility is a major step forward for ASTREA, there is more progress in the works. The unit is now in the process of trying to replace another two of the MD500D models with two more MD500F models. They would also like to acquire a true multi-mission helicopter, a Bell 412, to take a more active role in fire suppression and rescue.
The Sheriff’s Department has shown a real commitment to ASTREA with the building of this new hangar facility. It will improve operations and allow for expansion in the years to come.