Pinal County Sheriff's Office Aviation Support Unit
Pinal County Arizona, with its sprawling 5,300 square miles lying right smack between the Cities of Tucson and Phoenix, along the I-10 corridor no less, makes it a hotbed in the fight against both human, and drug smuggling. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu is a now a familiar face in Washington and on cable news shows as he fights for more government resources for his county. Astonishingly, prior to 2011 the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department had no air assets, and no air support unit, to help in the fight against the rising tide of smuggling.
While a need for the air unit was identified as long as 10 years ago, work to actually form the unit and acquire air assets began about three years ago. One of the first additions to the new unit was a 1976 Piper Super Cub obtained through a state surplus transfer from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The sheriff’s department immediately put the Piper Cub to work in the role of a day time patrol aircraft.
Pinal County Sheriff's Piper Super Cub, still sporting its US Customs paint job.
In the fall of 2011 Sheriff Babeu was awarded $1 Million from the state to purchase a helicopter. The county put out an open bid for the helicopter purchase, in September of 2011, with specific requirements that the helicopter not be more than 25 years old, or have more than 8,000 hours of total flight time. It also needed to be a four seat, turbine powered helicopter.
Eventually Pinal County Sheriff’s Department identified a 1990 MD 500E turbine helicopter for sale by a private individual in Texas. It was low time and very clean. Once purchased it was outfitted with all the industry standard law enforcement equipment such as search lights and infrared camera.
Pinal County Sheriff's MD 500E patrol helicopter
Along the way they picked up a 1969 MD, MH-6C helicopter from military surplus through a government surplus program operated by the Defense Logistics Agency. The MH-6C, the military version of an MD500C, was the original “Little Bird” or “Killer Egg” as it was often referred to by the troops during the Vietnam era.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Air Support Unit has already put up some impressive numbers. Between May of 2011, and April of 2012, members of the unit responded to 19 search and rescues, 8 vehicle pursuits, and assisted on over 30 drug smuggling incidents in the county. Just one example of the unit’s effectiveness was when they were called upon in March to assist Border Patrol agents in tracking two vehicles suspected of smuggling drugs. The air crew responded to the scene in their new MD 500E helicopter and eventually located an abandoned and camouflaged pickup containing 80 bundles of marijuana, totaling 1708 lbs.
Presently the unit operates with one full time helicopter pilot and a reserve Deputy helo pilot, along with one sworn full time fixed wing pilot, who doubles as a mechanic. The department also utilizes an additional Patrol Deputy as a Cub pilot when needed, and one additional Deputy is a full time TFO, and certified thermographer.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Air Support Unit operates out of the Casa Grande Municipal Airport in Casa Grande Arizona.
The MD 500C, or "Little Bird" acquired through government surplus.