It may be an understatement to say that the Topeka Police Department Helicopter unit has been the most hotly debated law enforcement aviation unit in the country, at least for the past 2 years or so. While the Topeka Police Chief has been a staunch supporter of the program, a significant portion of the community has made their distaste for the police helicopter unit well known.
The Topeka Air Support unit has had a number of setbacks over the 38 years it has been in existence. Just 3 years after it's start in 1971, Officer Marcus Hodd was killed in the crash of his patrol helicopter, a Hughes 269C (Schweizer 300) on November 1st 1974. The NTSB ruled that the crash was the result of an auto-rotation, with a high flare, and low rotor rpm. The report stated that reason for the emergency landing was not determined.
The Topeka Police Department continued to operate Hughes 269/Schweizer 300 helicopters for the next several decades. However, on June 13th 2000 tragedy struck again when two Topeka police officers were fatally injured in the crash of their Schweizer 300 helicopter.
The 2000 crash was very likely the beginning of the end of the Topeka PD Air Support Unit. While it is not the purpose of this website or this writer to critique other aviation units, the 2000 Topeka PD helicopter crash opened wide the doors of public scrutiny of the Topeka Police Air Support Unit.
Pilot Jeff Howey (37) and TFO Charles Bohlender (33) were assisting ground units on a night time, commercial burglary alarm at a Lowes home improvement store, when things turned deadly. According to ground units and witnesses the helicopter was in a tight right orbit over the store, when it suddenly began spinning, then nose dived into the ground and burst into flames. Both the pilot and TFO were killed on impact.
When questioned by NTSB investigators the Topeka PD's chief pilot stated that the Pilot In Command would have flown at 500' AGL while en-route to the call, but then would have descended to 200' and 50 knots over the incident in order to conduct the FLIR search. Now while that combination of altitude and airspeed -while working a police call, at night time, is enough to make most helicopter pilots cringe, it was further determined that the PIC had a grand total of 148.9 hours in helicopters. The TFO was non rated. Sadly the results speak for themselves.
The NTSB determined that the cause of the crash was "loss of tail rotor effectiveness" due to tight right turns with low forward airspeed, and probable loss of effective translational lift resulting in low rotor rpm. The NTSB also cited the pilot's overall inexperience in helicopters as a contributing factor.
There is little doubt that this incident invited intense public scrutiny of the Topeka Air Support Unit, and gave ammunition to it's detractors who would like to see the air unit's budget spent elsewhere.
However, the emergency landing & crash of Topeka's R-44 patrol helicopter, caught on surveillance video at Washburn University on the evening of April 5th 2008, was likely the nail in the coffin. The video of the crash landing made national news and only intensified the debate of the Topeka Helicopter program, among the citizens of Topeka Ks. The pilot in command was attempting to make a precautionary landing after experiencing high engine rpm and a low rotor rpm warning light. During the precautionary landing in the parking lot of Washburn University, the helicopters main rotor struck a light pole, causing the helicopter to come to rest on it's side, with damage.
The NTSB determined the cause of this incident to be a malfunctioning magneto which may have sent incorrect signals to the governor, this producing the high engine rpm and the low rotor rpm warning. Contact with the light pole was seen as a contributing factor.
The end came during the second and final hour of a budget session at city hall when the mayor proposed to remove the final $520,000 in funding for the program, and a city council member proposed to remove funding for the city's helicopter mechanic position. Topeka's police chief expressed shock at the move and questioned whether political motivations were involved.
While policehelicopterpilot.com is sad to see any law enforcement helicopter program disbanded, we do not presume to know what is best for the citizens of Topeka Ks.
Even though the city council has axed the budget for the city's police helicopter, the unit will continue to operate through the end of the year on the funds remaining in the current budget according to police officials.
It also seems that the city's decision to cut the police helicopter budget has done little more than fan the flames of this debate among Topeka's citizens. And there are reports that the police chief is looking for ways to privately fund the program, even though these reports are denied.
Even while an apparent large percentage of the citizens of Topeka seem to have quite a distaste for the police helicopter, virtually every major city in the U.S. embraces the crime fighting attributes of todays technologically advanced law enforcement helicopter.