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When will Drones Replace Police Helicopter Pilots

Drones are everywhere and they seem to be cheap, right? When will they replace police helicopter crews over American and European cities?

This UAV was developed by Barnard Microsystems Limited in the UK for science applications

Like helicopter pilots everywhere I have sat back and quietly watched the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Drone industries absolutely explode over the past five to eight years. Almost daily it seems there is a new drone or UAV unveiled somewhere with its own unique set of capabilities that make it superior to competitors.

Citizens everywhere are upset at the proliferation of drones and the perceived intrusiveness they bring to personal liberties. Other citizens seem to believe that all helicopter pilots will one day be replaced by drone aircraft.  There seems to be an undercurrent of belief that instead of manned police helicopters patrolling the skies over their cities; it will all be unmanned or autonomous drones.

Many local police and sheriff departments are snatching up their own UAV-Drones. In October of 2011 the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department located just north of Houston Texas, purchased their own MK-II ShadowHawk Unmanned Helicopter from Vanguard Defense Industries for about $220,000. Unlike other smaller battery operated drones, Montgomery County's helicopter has almost a 6' wingspan, weighs 29 lbs and runs on jet fuel. 

Even in my own air unit I recently overheard two of the younger members opining as to whether they would ever be replaced by drones.

While none of us can fully predict what the makeup of the police helicopter crew will be in 30-40 years I think we can make some educated guesses based on the facts at hand.

At any rate, consider this article my opinion on the topic of unmanned drones replacing human helicopter pilots and crews in the coming years. 

This is a quite a large topic with many sub-topics; I will not attempt to cover every single angle in this one article.

In order to begin a talk of drones replacing law enforcement helicopter crews one has to really try to compartmentalize the discussion. Currently the drone market represents everything from tiny nanobots to the newest MQ-8C Fire Scout Fire Scout based on the Bell 407 airframe, all the way up to the autonomous heavy left Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max helicopter currently operated by the Marine Corps, (only two were built and one has since crashed.)

Cost of the new MQ-8C Fire Scout is estimated to be $18.2 million per unit

So to even discuss drones vs. real helicopter crews where do you start? Do you just compare same size drones to same size law enforcement helicopters? Or do you compare capabilities of the drone vs. capabilities of the real helicopter crew?

We have to have a starting point. Through reading, research, aviation experience and a little application of brain power I have come up with three primary points or questions that I think apply most prominently to the discussion. Again the question is; will drones ever replace police helicopter crews.

  • First, what is the purpose of replacing real pilots with pilot-less drones to begin with? Is there even a need to replace human police helicopter crews?
  • Next; is it cost effective to replace real pilots with pilot-less drones? Many people assume that it is but you might be surprised.
  • Finally, while the FAA has been ordered by congress to integrate drones into the U.S. Air Space system by 2015, will the final rule(s) allow pilot-less drones to ever operate over populated American Cities?

Now perhaps the even bigger question to ask is; could an unmanned drone aircraft ever be as effective as a police helicopter crew with two humans, two brains and 4 eyeballs working as a team inside the helicopter, versus a crew sitting at a control station on the ground miles away? While this is perhaps the best question to ask, I am not going to address it in this article simply because I don’t think we need to go that far. There is a ton of published data that speaks directly to the other three points, which we can use to help us reach a reasonable conclusion.

But to answer the question, I don’t really know how one would argue that taking the helicopter crew out of a helicopter and putting them in a ground control station miles away, with all of their visual input coming through a single camera lense, could possible enhance the overall mission.

As a reminder, for this discussion I am not talking about small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) that a police officer or SWAT Commander can pull out of their trunk or command vehicle and deploy, keeping it in line of site below 400’ agl, in order to scout a suspect’s residence or perhaps even search a small field for a lost child. I am talking about replacing entire helicopter crews that operate over virtually every large American City or European City for that matter.

Let me also say at this point that I have no ax to grind with the drone industry or the small UAV industry. Any tool that can help a police officer catch the bad guy, or complete his/her mission safely or find that missing child, is fine by me. 

What is the real purpose of replacing pilots and crews with pilot-less drones?

On the surface it seems as though there are only two real reasons to replace a live pilot with a pilotless drone. The first and foremost is to remove the pilot from hostile combat situations. No doubt that lives of pilots have already been saved since drones took to the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan in the year 2000, (operated first by the CIA.)

The second reason to replace a manned aircraft with a drone is that the amount of time the drone can stay in the air is now limited to fuel instead of pilot-human needs. That means keeping that eye in the sky up there for as long as 14 or 20 hours depending on the drone.

Are police helicopter pilots and crews, operating over American Cities, working in hostile combat situations? For the most part, no they are not. While a police helicopter has been taken down by gunfire before, we are not losing police helicopters to RPG’s the last time I checked. No great need to replace the police helicopter crew for this reason.

Ok, how about loiter time over a city? Now from a law enforcement standpoint I can see the benefit of hanging a powerful Star SAFIRE Flir at 20,000’ over a city, for 15 or 20 hours at a time, and when a priority call comes out you just zoom in on the address and start getting live feed of the unfolding crime. Sounds pretty cool huh; except for those citizens who are really concerned about big brother watching their every move- not so cool for them.

To answer this question we have to look forward to question number three. Will the FAA ever allow unmanned drones to operate over populated American cities? I think by the end of the article you, like me, will conclude that few county and municipal governments will see neither the need nor the cost effectiveness in putting a drone camera above their city for 15 or 20 hour stretches.

While it may seem that we have already answered the question of whether there is even a need to replace police helicopter pilots with drones, these next two areas I think are the real eye openers. 

Moving on to the cost effectiveness of operating pilot-less drones 

Placing a drone in the sky for long periods of time is a wartime tactic. If we are going to discuss replacing piloted helicopter crews with unmanned drones, then I think we need to compare apples to apples.  

Let’s take a quick look at what it takes to operate the most basic drone over hostile territory.  

Enter the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone.

The MQ-1 Predator Drone is a piston powered base line drone with a per unit cost of about $5 million

The very first thing you need to understand is that the Predator Drone falls out of the sky on a fairly regular basis, for a variety of reasons but almost never due to enemy action. I have heard it said that the MQ-1 Predator does not have any redundant systems on board. If the computer takes a dump and re-boots, that particular aircraft becomes a smoking hole in the ground. The following information from Wikipedia seems to confirm this.

Note-while this seems like it should fall under a safety argument, it also falls under the cost effective argument as you will see. Making a reliable unmanned drone with numerous redundant systems is expensive.

“By the start of the United States Afghan campaign in 2001, the USAF had acquired 60 Predators, and said it had lost 20 of them in action. Few if any of the losses were from enemy action, the worst problem apparently being foul weather, particularly icy conditions.  A few of the later USAF Predators were fitted with de-icing systems, along with an uprated turbocharged engine and improved avionics.

As of March 2009, the U.S. Air Force had 195 MQ-1 Predators and 28 MQ-9 Reapers in operation. Predators and Reapers fired missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. A report in March 2009 indicated that U.S. Air Force had lost 70 Predators in air crashes during its operational history. Fifty-five were lost to equipment failure, operator error, or weather. Four have been shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq. Eleven more were lost to operational accidents on combat missions. In 2012, the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk were described as "... the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet."

Here is where we get into the cost effective part

So what is the current cost of a single MQ-1 Predator Drone? For the most basic, piston powered drone that General Atomics makes the costs is 4.5 to $5 million. Remember we are comparing a piston powered fixed wing drone to a turbine powered police helicopter. We haven’t started comparing helicopter drones to police helicopters.

So now we have some understanding of the weaknesses of some drone aircraft, and with that in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to put a drone in the skies over a combat zone.

According to this 2012 US News Article drones are only slightly cheaper overall than conventional fighter jets.

“But a new report released this week by the American Security Project, or ASP, concludes that most military drones are only "generally slightly cheaper to both acquire and operate than conventional fighter jets."

“Despite claims to the contrary, unmanned planes require a large crew: There is one remote pilot, another remote crew member to operate the valuable cameras mounted on many, and "because a drone is not operated individually, but as part of a system consisting of several aircraft, sensors, ground control, and satellite linkages, the number of personnel needed to operate a Predator Combat Air Patrol (CAP) is estimated to exceed 80 people," states the report. It refers to the Predator unmanned plane that has been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and allegedly in Yemen. The number of crew members needed to operate other drone fleets composed of four aircraft can approach 130, ASP concludes.”

Note- the Predator drone has always been sold to the government in groups of 4, along with a ground control station and associated equipment. The $4.5 to $5 million is a per unit costs and does not include the cost of any associated equipment such as the ground control station. Dividing the above numbers by 4, you can see that it would still require an average of 20 to 40 people to operate a single drone as they are currently operated in the combat zone.

Remember too that the MQ-1 Predator and its predecessor the MQ-1C Grey Eagle are the most basic of all military drones. The next step up in the General Atomics line is the MQ-9 Reaper which is powered by a Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop engine with 900 shaft horse power. While we are still talking about fixed wing drones, the Reaper allows us to now compare turbine engine drone to turbine engine police helicopter.

The turboprop MQ-9 Reaper has an estimated per unit cost of $16.9 million

Of course the reaper has an all-around more robust electronics package to for its war time mission but what is the price of the Reaper? The most recent unit cost for an MQ-9 Reaper has been put at 16.9 million. Sure a civilian law enforcement version would not need the weapons targeting systems and such, so the price would be somewhat cheaper. But anyone who thinks a drone aircraft capable of fully replacing a police helicopter crew is going to be an affordable solution has probably not conducted any serious research on the matter.  

The same report concludes that drones have a "greater tendency toward mishaps" than piloted warplanes. There goes your safety factor again.

So back to the first two questions we asked at the beginning of this section. What is the purpose of replacing a police helicopter crew? We determined there is no real need to replace the crew due to hostile environment.

That only leaves us to consider “loiter time over a city” as a reason to replace the police helicopter crew, in my opinion. I think we have shown that the combination of safety concerns (for now) and cost of trying to duplicate a drones loiter time in the combat zone, with loiter time over a populated city, are both cost prohibitive and prohibitive from a safety standpoint. So we have answered our first two questions already, right?

Opening up US skies over populated cities to drones?

While the FAA has been ordered by congress to integrate drones into the U.S. Air Space system by 2015, will the final rule(s) allow pilot-less drones to ever operate over populated American Cities?

The FAA has always gone through great lengths to protect the public on the ground from the aircraft flying above its head. That is why helicopters are generally restricted from operating below 500’ above ground level while over populated areas, and fixed wing are restricted from operating below 1000’ feet agl over populated areas.

Both altitudes are based on the minimum altitude that a safe landing can be conducted in the event of an engine out situation in either aircraft, per the FAA. FAA rules also prohibit a pilot from operating a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft within 500’ or 1000’ respectively, vertically or horizontally, of any person except while taking off and landing. The FAA takes public safety seriously.

To get an idea what the FAA rule might look like, and what drone manufacturers are going to have to do to comply with it, I scoured the internet and came up with this article on Popular Mechanics.com

Popular Mechanics did a great job of going right to the source for the best answers. John Walker is a former FAA director and now co-chair of a federal advisory panel that is developing standards for UAS technology.

As a starting point here is the FAA’s current rule regarding UAVs. Currently the FAA allows unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or (UAV) to fly as long as their operators keep them in sight, fly below 400 feet, and avoid populated areas and airports. These are the small drones that are being heavily marketed to police and law enforcement agencies by the UAV industry. Law Enforcement and government agencies have to register their UAVs and jump through some extra hoops, but that is generally the rule.

But coming up with safety standards for large drones that fly at altitude (think 5, 10, 20,000 feet) it is far more complicated than regulating the operation of an RC plane flying along at treetop level or a little higher, within the operator's line of sight.

The Popular Mechanics article states;

“Aerospace companies and the Pentagon are developing systems that combine radar, cameras, or other sensors with software that will detect aircraft and change course to avoid them. Some of the systems rely on ground stations, while more advanced versions are incorporated into the drones.

This solution comes with engineering drawbacks, however. "By hanging that type of technology on an unmanned aircraft, you start adding a lot of weight and draining a lot of power," says Viva Austin, the civilian official in charge of the Army's ground-based sense-and-avoid project.

John Walker, a former FAA director and co-chair of a federal advisory panel that is developing standards for UAS technology, says technical demands will likely slow the pace of drone adoption. For example, the panel may recommend that the FAA require sense-and-avoid systems that will steer a drone away from potential collision courses, not just perform the simple "climb or descend" instructions current systems give a pilot.

That requires a flight-control computer powerful enough to handle complex algorithms. "What we're talking about for separation assurance is climb, descend, turn left, turn right," Walker says. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of modeling and simulation."

The result? Walker predicts manufacturers and operators will have to invest a lot of money and years of work to meet the pending FAA requirements.”

John Walker’s statements in the above article seem to be in line with how the FAA has always taken public safety at heart. Clearly Mr. Walker does not believe the technology has even been developed yet that will meet the FAA rule he believes will be forthcoming.

To sum up this part of the discussion; it is likely that at some point in the future unmanned aircraft will be operating in some capacity of populated cities, but I think we are many years away from local law enforcement agencies seeing it as a cost effective or necessary alternative to the manned police helicopter as we know it today. In short, if you are a young person hoping for a career in Airborne Law Enforcement, I wouldn’t worry myself over the idea of drones replacing police helicopters any time in the near future.

Drones already operating over unpopulated areas in the U.S.

Just in case you thought I missed it, yes there are a number of full size drones already operating in the U.S., over unpopulated area. Oh, and some of them have already crashed.

Customs & Border Protection

In October of 2005 the Department of Homeland Security deployed a single Predator B drone for the purposes of border protection.

But the drone’s border duty was cut short when it crashed on April 25, 2006 when the ground based pilot experienced a lock up of the displays on the primary control console and switched to a backup console. The aircraft’s engine was inadvertently shut off and the plane descended and crashed near Nogales Arizona.

Today the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine operate at least seven MQ-9 Predator B (Reaper) drones on both the northern and southern borders as well as a marine version.

According to information provided by U.S. Customs & Border Inspection the currently operate the following drones;

OAM (Office of Air & Marine) operates three Predator B’s from Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona; and two from Grand Forks Air Force Base, in North Dakota.

OAM also operates a maritime variant UAS, called the Guardian. OAM’s two Guardian aircraft fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; and Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.

OAM expects to employ the Predator B throughout the border regions with command and control from a network of ground control stations across the country.

No question that the drone invasion is upon us. But hopefully the coming evolution of the skies will be reasonable and safe one.

Only two of the Lockeed Martin/Kaman Kmax autonomous helicopters were ever built. One has since crashed. Estimated per unit cost-over $20 million

Happy flying!

Magnum PI Helicopter Flies Again In Hawaii

A beautiful helicopter restored:

An MD500D Helicopter, a beautifully restored copy of the Magnum PI series helicopter.

What young boy ever watched an episode of Magnum PI and didn’t wish he had the lifestyle of Thomas Magnum, the fictitious Private Investigator who worked out of his boss’s luxury estate on the island of Oahu.  When he wasn’t zipping around in a Ferrari 308 GTS, Magnum (Tom Selleck) was being choppered around the islands by Theodore ”TC” Calvin in that beautiful MD500D helicopter with the unmistakable brown, yellow, and burnt orange paint scheme. All in the name of helping his clients, many of them beautiful women, and solving those perplexing cases he was hired to investigate, of course.

If you have ever dreamed of flying over tropical scenery, waterfalls and pristine beaches in the Magnum PI helicopter, there is a helicopter tour company in Hawaii who can now make that dream come true. Paradise Helicopters of Honolulu just accepted the keys to a magnificently restored MD500D model helicopter from Phoenix Heliparts of Phoenix Arizona.

The new Magnum PI helicopter:

The nose of the helicopter was autographed by Magnum PI actors Roger E Mosley and Larry Manetti.

The official ceremony took place on the floor of the HAI Heli-Expo in Las Vegas earlier this month (March, 2013). On hand for the ceremony were two of the original actors from the TV series, Roger E Mosley, who played TC- the helicopter pilot, and Larry Manetti, who played Rick Wright the manager of a posh private club and one of Magnum’s sidekicks. Oh, and Rick was also TC’s Marine Corps door gunner in Vietnam.  Both actors autographed the nose of the newly restored Magnum helicopter, which is true in every detail to at least one of the helicopters that was used in the filming, to include the tail number, N58253.

The refurbished helicopter was first certificated by the FAA in 1978, and was reportedly a Honolulu Police Helicopter before it was sent to Arizona to be transformed back into the Magnum PI helicopter.

As a pilot with 1500 hours in MD500 helicopters, (thank you San Diego Sheriff’s Department) you can imagine my excitement when I spotted this aircraft on the floor of Heli-Expo. Sure there were countless other helicopters to look at; multi-engine, multi-passenger helicopters of every shape, size, color scheme and manufacturer but in my mind this little helicopter stole the show.

Every inch of the helicopter has been restored to Mint condition. 

By all appearances it had just rolled off of the assembly line as a “spankin” new helicopter. I am well aware that the signature round nose generally indicates an older ‘D’ or ‘C’ model Hughes 369/MD500, but for a few minutes I wasn’t sure if MD was still building round nose helicopters. The helicopter was pristine inside and out, to include the engine compartment and its 250-C20R turboshaft engine.

Since it will be used for tours back in Hawaii the helicopter is outfitted with a Flightcell DZMx SATCOM system. The DZMx is billed as the world’s smallest, lightest, and smartest SATCOM for voice, data and aircraft tracking.

Paradise Helicopters:

Paradise Helicopters has been in business since 1997 and currently offers helicopter tours on the Big Island from Kona and Hilo, as well as from the Island of Oahu. On the Big Island (Island of Hawaiʻi) the most popular destinations are the regions volcanos and the hundreds of waterfalls. In fact Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is Hawaii’s number one attraction. Here you will find Kilaueu Volcano which has been erupting continuously since 1983. Paradise Helicopters operate a fleet of Bell 407 helicopters which have seating for 1 pilot and six passengers, and the MD500 helicopters have seating for 1 pilot and up to four passengers.

The best light helicopter ever built:

The MD500D's egg shape cabin and what is essentially a built in roll bar make it a very tough little helicopter.

If you can’t tell by now, it is my humble opinion that the MD500D Helicopter is quite possibly the best light helicopter that has ever been manufactured. That also means it is one of the safest small helicopters ever built; again just my opinion but that’s for a different article. If you are going to Hawaii and you want to feel like Magnum PI for an hour or so, track down Paradise Helicopters and their beautifully restored Magnum edition helicopter.

How Much Does a Helicopter Cost?

Where is the real Magnum PI helicopter today:

So where is the original Magnum PI helicopter? There is evidence that at least one of them is still in service in Kentucky owned by a company that sub-contracts to an electric company. There are a number of comments in online forums from pilots who claimed to have flown the aircraft in Kentucky, and have observed the log book entries when it was used form filming on the Magnum PI series in Hawaii. Another one may have crashed during unrelated filming, but it is not the helicopter crash that was caught on film and featured on several TV shows.

Two San Diego Sheriff Air Crew Members Receive Governor's Medal Of Valor Award

Deputies Scott Bligh and Gary Kneeshaw were among 13 California Public Safety Members to be awarded the Governor's Public Safety Medal of Valor on Wednesday September 14th, 2011.  Bligh and Kneeshaw earned the recognition from Governor Brown for one of the most daring law enforcement helicopter rescues in recent memory.  On August 21st, 2010 battled heavy smoke, flames, and embers blowing into the cockpit to rescue two trapped mountain climbers off the side of El Cajon Mountain near El Capitan Reservoir in San Diego County. 

The female climber was picked off the side of the mountain first in a "Toe In" maneuver after Deputy Kneeshaw climbed out of the helicopter and placed her in his seat.  Kneeshaw stayed behind with the male climber waiting for his partner and helicopter to return.  During the wait Kneeshaw and the male climber were almost overrun by fire and had to run across the face of the mountain to evade the flames.

Deputy Bligh fought through reduced visibility, smoke, and burning embers to fly back in and locate Kneeshaw and the male climber in their new location on the mountain.  At one point during the pick up Bligh received a low rotor rpm warning in the cockpit, indicating that the engine could be losing power. Bligh quickly recognized that the engine was still creating power and the momentary low rotor rpm was a result of the extreme flight conditions and demands on the helicopter.

After outrunning flames once, Deputy Kneeshaw made a quick decision to ride the skid of the helicopter out of the hot zone, a technique he had never practiced and had never trained for.  After loading the male climber into the front seat Kneeshaw stepped onto the skid and shouted at Bligh to take off.  With flames once again threatening the tail of the helicopter Bligh and Kneeshaw flew the remaining climber off the mountain and to safety.  You can read a more complete article on the rescue here.  

Newark NJ Launches Police Aviation Unit

We often assume that every large city in America has a police aviation unit of some type, but that assumption is not always correct.  Who knew that Newark New Jersey has been without a Police Air Ops unit, at least for the past 5 years or so.  In all honesty I haven't had time to research whether or not they have ever had an air unit, but this Friday marked the maiden flight of their police helicopter, a refurbished OH-58 military surplus helicopter.

Newark PD took possession of the bird in 2006 but until now did not have the money to retrofit it with the necessary police equipment.  Things such as police radios, spot lights and P.A. systems are basic necessities if you are going to be at all effective as an aerial support platform.  However, the department was recently able to use Homeland Security funding to bring the helicopter up to current law enforcement standards, to include a video-camera system.

Chicago PD was without a police aviation unit for about 10 years.  It was re-established about 2 years ago with a Bell Jet Ranger, and a Bell Jet Long Ranger.  The OH-58 helicopter is the military version of the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.  

Still searching for a photo of Newark's new Police Helicopter. 

Man Who Shot At Escondido Police Officers and ASTREA Helicopter Sentenced To 34 Years

A man driving a stolen car, and in possession of stolen guns, who shot at Escondido Ca. Police Officers and the San Diego Sheriff's ASTREA Helicopter was recently sentenced to 34 years in State Prison.  While no officers or deputies were injured in the pursuit and shooting, Escondido Police Officer Ryan Banks uniform was grazed by a bullet, just missing his neck.  The pursuit began when an officer responded to a simple "suspicious person" call, of a subject who had been sitting in a vehicle in a neighborhood for several hours.  That man was Eric Anthony Pomatto 27.

Pomatto was in a stolen car and was in possession of two weapons he found in the car when he stole from a Starbucks in Chula Vista earlier that day.  Pomatto was essentially lying in wait for the father of his ex-girlfriend, whom he planned to kill.  During the pursuit Pomatto fired numerous rounds from both a shotgun and 9 MM pistol.  Some of those rounds were fired at the San Diego Sheriff's helicopter with Deputy-Pilots Gene Palos and Darren Dollard on board.  

You can read more on this story here.

AS350 Corporate Helicopter Does Rescue "Toe In" At 12000' In Colorado

AS350 performing a Toe In at 12,300' in the Colorado Rockies, Photo Via KVAL.comA privately owned Eurocopter AS350 was called upon by a local Sheriff's Commander to assist in a rescue in the Colorado Rockies last week.  What makes this story amazing is the photo of the Astar Helicopter Pilot performing a Toe In with this particular helicopter.  The photo was snapped by someone on the ground as the helicopter came in to drop off the San Miguel Sheriff's Commander- who is also a paramedic.

I say it is an amazing photo because I honestly didn't think you could do much of a Toe In with a Eurocopter, based on how far back their skids set on the airframe.  Compare the skids on an MD500 with those on a Eurocopter, and you will see that the front of the skids on the MD500 are almost out in front of the entire airframe.  This along with the shorter- 5 bladed rotor disc, makes the MD500 or MD530F an ideal platform for this maneuver.  The Eurocopter AS350 does come with a lot more power however, making operations at 12,000' a bit easier.

Note how much further forward the front of the skids are in relation to the cockpit on this MD530F.In this case hiker Joe Yearm suffered a compound fracture just below the knee as he was descending from the 14,159' El Diente Peak.  For unknown reasons Yearm was hiking alone, and in the dark, when he fell 20' into a snow field breaking his leg.  Yearm was able to crawl to a nearby slope where he was discovered by two other hikers a few hours later.  One of these hikers was in possession of a personal locator beacon which he used to notify authorities of the injured hiker.  

On Sunday Pilot PJ Hunt was flying the AS350 helicopter for his employer Heli-Dunn based out of Phoenix Oregon, when he was hailed over the radio by Commander Eric Burg of the San Miguel Sheriff's Department.  Burg advised Hunt of the pending rescue and asked if he could assist.  Hunt quickly obtained permission from his supervisors and within a few minutes was landing at Burg's house to pick him up.  

Hunt and Burg flew to the coordinates sent out by the locator beacon and eventually located three people on a steep rock strewn slope at 12,300'.  Hunt performed the Toe In landing long enough for Burg to climb out of the helicopter and provide medical attention to the injured hiker.  Burg and the two uninjured hikers then carved out a slightly better landing site for Hunt, where he was able to perform a one skid landing in the Astar.  The one skid landing allowed Yearm to be loaded directly into the helicopter.  Yearm was then flown to a waiting ambulance in Telluride Co.  

The AS350 pictured above is registered to T. Scott Dunn Construction Inc., out of Medford Oregon.

You can read the full story here.

Robber Convicted In 2009 Jewelry Store Heist: Sheriff's Helicopter Assisted On Call

I remember this call well.  I was the TFO on board the helicopter but I can't seem to remember who was flying on this day, perhaps Scott Sterner.  It was a sunny October morning in 2009 when we were called to assist Carlsbad Police Department with a jewelry store robbery.  

Carlsbad is a coastal city that enjoys a pretty low crime rate anyway.  As we arrived I was directed to the jewelry store by officers on the ground.  The store was the end unit of a rather long but quaint commercial building in the downtown area of Carlsbad known as the village.  

The primary Carlsbad PD officer requested that we check the roof since the robber seemed to emerge from the lady's restroom to commit his crimes, and then disappeared back into the lady's restroom after robbing the two employees who had just opened up shop.  Sure enough, peering through my stabilized binoculars I observed a definite hole in the roof of the business, not far from the back door.

The robber had been wearing a full mask and gloves, so there was very little description for law enforcement to go on at the time.  We did however conduct some PA announcements in the area in an attempt to find potential witnesses, who may have seen anything or anyone suspicious prior to the robbery.   

A short time later officers confirmed that there was a hole in the ceiling of the women's restroom.  A few minutes after that they announced that a mask, an airsoft gun, a bag and jewelry were found in the crawl space between the ceiling and the roof.  We stayed on scene for some time while officers cleared the crawl space, and surrounding businesses.  I could see why the robber might think it was smart to leave his gun and mask behind, but why would he leave some of the jewels behind?  Had officers arrived on scene while the suspect was still in the roof, causing him to abandon his loot?  Ultimately it would be DNA from the mask that would convict him.

Eventually it was determined that the suspect was most likely out of the area.  With nothing else for us to do, we went back into service and flew away thinking we had probably heard the last about the case. 

Imagine my surprise this morning when I ran across this article published just today in the San Diego Reader.  It seems our robber friend had a long history of similar criminal conduct.  So much so that the judge found it acceptable to sentence him to 50 years to life in prison for this robbery.  It's a great read!

Final Report On 2009 New Mexico State Police Helicopter Crash Is Published

The long awaited report on the New Mexico State Police- fatal helicopter crash (June 9th, 2009) was released late last month by the NTSB.  In many ways there are no real surprises in it.  It was expected that the NTSB would find fault with the pilot's decision to take off from the remote mountain landing zone, while surrounded by inclement weather and darkness.  I don't say that to be harsh on the pilot, it was just obvious that they would find fault with it.  But the report goes much deeper than that, examining every aspect of the New Mexico State Police aviation program, the pilot's duties within the State Police, sleep habits, etc.  Essentially no stone was left unturned.  The aviation community and particularly the police aviation community should welcome such thorough investigations.

It seems so redundant to say that we must learn from others mistakes, because that is what we say each and every time we discuss one of these cases.  But it is emphatically true.  To not study, learn, and discuss incident's such as this would be simply unprofessional. 

Each of us make mistakes on a daily or weekly basis, whether flying or on the ground, that potentially could cost us our lives.  The annual death toll on our nations highways proves this to be true.  Hence the old saying "There but for the grace of God go I."  It is in that vein that we look at this report.

The number of lessons that can be drawn from it are almost to numerous to mention.  One of the most glaring however is that this rescue mission into high altitude rugged terrain, in deteriorating weather conditions, in a complex aircraft, with darkness closing in, was undertaken essentially as a single pilot operation, and without the help of NVGs.  Yes there was another officer on board.  But that officer was an un-trained air crew member who had never been up in New Mexico State's police helicopter before that fateful day.  Be assured, one cannot place any blame at his feet.  The vast majority of patrol officers on any agency would have gladly stepped up and accepted the same mission.

As an un-trained air crew member this officer likely had no idea that he was an integral part of the air crew, who has equal authority to decline a mission or decline that take off from that mountain top landing zone in inclement weather.  Even if he had understood this, he did not have any air crew experience on which to base a decision. 

True the FAA gives final authority to the pilot in command.  But as a member of an air crew, with your life as much on the line, the TFO has absolutely as much say so as the pilot.  The saying "two to go, one to say no" means that both crew members have to agree before they can launch on a mission, but it only takes one crew member to say "no" they are not comfortable with the mission.  This rule can of course be invoked at any time, during any air mission.  Just because the TFO has not yet mastered the controls of a helicopter, or passed a check ride, does not mean that his or her concerns on the safe operation of the helicopter are any less valid. 

The NTSB seemed to find plenty of fault within the New Mexico State Police air unit and command.  To include; an attitude among some of the command that was not compatible with aviation safety, staffing issues within the air unit, specifically the lack of trained TFOs, the pilot in command having split duties as public information officer, and the complete lack of any type of risk assessment. 

I will not re-hash the entire report here.  Instead I would encourage anyone who flies, whether you are a member of an air crew or not, to read the report and take your own lessons from it. 

The entire 77 page report can be read here

R.I.P Sgt. Andrew F Tingwall, and Megumi Yamamoto (student from Tokyo)

Feds Don't Take Kindly To Messing With Aircraft

I am not sure what the atmosphere was like prior to September 11th 2001, but I can tell you that post 9/11 the Federal Bureau of Investigation takes any incidents of assaults on aircraft seriously.  Whether that is shooting at an aircraft, or pointing a laser at an aircraft.

Now to be honest, there are so many laser incidents that I don't really get excited about reporting them anymore.  You sometimes wonder if reporting them does more harm than good anyway.

Regardless, an Orlando Florida man just felt the wrath of the Federal Justice System when he was sentenced this week to 12 1/2 years in Federal Prison for shooting at an Orange County Florida Sheriff's helicopter back in March of 2010.  The suspect, 27 year old Jason Dennis McGuire, was presumably upset about the helicopter noise, but tried to convince the jury that he was suicidal and just fired the gun up in the air, and into a palm tree. 

Not buying his argument the jury convicted McGuire on charges of attempted destruction of an aircraft, being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and for using a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. 

Twelve years in prison is a pretty serious (although well deserved) price to pay for one moment of felony stupidity. 

Source:  Orlando Sentinel

LAPD Helicopter Struck by Gunfire Over Van Nuys

Glen Grossman photo: LAPD Patrol HelicopterAn 18 year old Van Nuys resident was in custody just after 6:00 am on Easter Sunday morning after police received a call of the subject firing a gun into the air from his front lawn.  As police officers arrived on scene, along with the Los Angeles Police Helicopter, the subject began shooting at the helicopter.

According to an L.A. Times report, officers on the ground witnessed the suspect firing at the helicopter.  The suspect, Danny Lopez, was quickly tackled by his own family members  preventing further violence.  The helicopter, struck in the fuel tank, made an emergencly landing at near by Van Nuys Airport.  The police pilot and tactical flight officer were uninjured, but confirmed that the helicopter was hit by rifle fire. 

LAPD maintains one of the largest municipal police helicopter fleets in the world with the following helicopters; 12 Aerospatiale B-2 Astars, 4 Bell 206 Jet Rangers, 1 UH-1H "Huey" heliocpter, and 1 King Air 200 Fixed Wing.  In the last few years LAPD returned to a more traditional black & white patrol car type paint sceme for their fleet of patrol helicopters.

Enstrom Helicopters Meeting The Helicopter Demand Worldwide

Enstrom helicoptershave always struck me as the ugly duckling of the helicopter world.  But I have always liked the rugged simplistic look of the Enstrom as well, and who doesn't like an ugly duckling story anyway? 

It really makes you think that upon initial design the engineers said "screw esthetics, let's build a helicopter that will get the job done."  More and more helicopter purchasers around the world must be thinking along the same lines.  I recently received a couple of photos and press releases from Jackie Kamps at Enstrom Helicopter Corporation.

Enstrom 480B Turbine Helicopters bound for The Royal Thai Army.

Enstrom Helicopter Corp. Begins Royal Thai Army Aircraft Production

Menominee MI, March 3, 2011 – Enstrom Helicopter Corporation would like to announce that the first three, of a contracted sixteen, 480B advanced turbine training helicopters for the Royal Thai Army have been completed at the Enstrom factory.  The aircraft have been equipped with a number of advanced features, including NVG compatible cockpits, Chelton EFIS systems, and dual Wulfsberg RT-5000 tactical radio systems.

“These represent some of the most advanced aircraft we have built to date,” commented Enstrom’s Director of Engineering, Bill Taylor.  “That we were able to get them engineered and into production so quickly is a testament to our team in Menominee, and our support from the FAA’s Chicago Aircraft Certification Office.  The Royal Thai Army is going to have some very capable helicopters.”

The First Enstrom 480B on patrol with the Japan Self Defense Force.

Enstrom Delivers First Helicopter to JGSDF

Sendai, Japan, February 25, 2011 – Enstrom Helicopter Corporation has delivered the first of a planned 30 TH-480B turbine training helicopters to the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force.  The stunning blue and gold helicopter was handed over to JGSDF pilots at Enstrom’s Service Center in Japan, JAMCO, during an elaborate handover ceremony attended by JGSDF officials and the Japanese Ministry of Defense. 

“This is a great day for Enstrom,” said Enstrom Helicopter Corp. President and CEO, Jerry Mullins, who attended the ceremony.  “The 480B was originally designed as a training helicopter.  To be chosen by a highly regarded organization, such as the JGSDF, is verification of what we started out to do with the aircraft.  This is the beginning of a long relationship with the JGSDF and we couldn’t be more excited.”

For Mitsuo Hattori of Aero Facility Co. Ltd, Enstrom’s representative in Japan, it has been a long road up to this point.  “Since we won the program 12 months ago, it’s been an exciting year.  Aero Facility has expanded in size and contracted with Japan’s premier maintenance organization, JAMCO, to support the JGSDF.   Now that the infrastructure is in place, and the first aircraft is delivered, we can look forward the next 29.”

As JGSDF pilot Hiromichi Irifune departed Sendai airport in the TH-480B, with a Kawasaki OH-1 attack helicopter in tow, Mullins commented, “There’s no doubt the 480B has been recognized as a great training helicopter.  The pilots really like the helicopter and that’s the most important thing.”

There are a handfull of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. who fly Enstrom helicopters, including the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana. 

NTSB Releases Preliminary Report On Pima County Sheriff Helicopter Crash

While I know it is best to wait for the full report and all of the facts.  It is still human nature to ask what went wrong.  I am asking myself if this was a tail rotor strike.......

NTSB Identification: WPR11GA115
14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Monday, January 31, 2011 in Marana, AZ
Aircraft: MCDONNELL DOUGLAS HELI CO 369FF, registration: N530RL
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 2 Serious, 1 Minor.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On January 31, 2011, about 1115 mountain standard time, a McDonnell-Douglas 369FF helicopter, N530RL, was substantially damaged during an attempted pinnacle landing on Waterman Peak near Marana, Arizona. The pilot received fatal injuries, two passengers received serious injuries, and one passenger received minor injuries. The public-use flight was operated by the Pima County Sheriff's Department (PCSD) in support of the Pima County Wireless Integrated Network (PCWIN) communications development project. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the flight.

The purpose of the flight was to enable PCWIN personnel to conduct a site survey for the planned installation of a communications-repeater tower. The helicopter departed Tucson International Airport (TUS), Tucson, Arizona, about 1050, with the PCSD pilot/deputy in the left front seat, two Pima County employees in the right front and rear seats, and a private contractor in the left rear seat. Initially, the flight was in communication with, and being tracked by, TUS local and TRACON air traffic control (ATC) facilities as it headed for the peak, located about 30 miles west-northwest of TUS.

The 1053 TUS recorded weather observation included winds from 300 degrees at 9 knots with gusts to 16 knots; visibility 10 miles; and a broken cloud layer at 7,000 feet.

The passengers reported that during the landing attempt, the helicopter either bounced or the pilot lifted off again, the nose pitched down, and then the helicopter began to spin to the right.

The helicopter tumbled and slid about 120 feet down the northeast face of the peak before it was halted by rocks and scrub vegetation.

A ground-based witness located about 1,000 feet west of and below the peak stated that the helicopter completed about four or five rotations before it disappeared from his view.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records indicated that the pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with rotorcraft-helicopter and instrument-helicopter ratings, and a private pilot certificate with airplane single and multiengine land ratings. According to the pilot's personal flight log, he had approximately 11,500 total hours of flight experience, most of which was in helicopters. His first recorded flight in the accident helicopter make and model was in August 2008, and he had logged about 186 total hours in that equipment. In January 2011, excluding the accident flight, the pilot logged 6 flights, for a total of 7.5 hours, in the accident helicopter make and model. His most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued in February 2010. According to PCSD information, the pilot joined PCSD in November 2008, and had about 30 years experience flying helicopters for the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.

The helicopter was manufactured in 1998, and was registered to Pima County in 2008. The helicopter's most recent annual inspection was completed in April 2010, and it had accumulated about 115 hours in service between that inspection and the accident. The helicopter was equipped with an Allison (Rolls-Royce) 250-C30 series turbine engine.

During the follow-up investigation, the engine was removed and prepared for a test-run. During the test run, the engine developed rated power, and engine performance exceeded minimum values for overhauled engines, and no anomalies were noted.

Tragedy Strikes Pima County (AZ) Sheriff's Aviation Unit

Pima County Sheriff's MD530F & Helio Courier aircraft. This appears to be the same helicopter involved in the fatal crash on Monday.A Pima County Arizona Sheriff's Department helicopter with four souls on board crashed Monday morning around 1130 am while scouting an area for new communication towers.  The pilot, Loren Leonberger 60, was fatally injured in the crash.  Of the three other occupants on board the helicopter two were reported to be in serious condition and on was reported to be in critical condition. 

The civilian pilot, Leonberger, first flew helicopters with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1970.  Prior to coming to work for the Pima County Sheriff's Department he worked as a helicopter pilot for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.  The crash occurred approximately 40 miles northwest of Tucson International airport in a rugged area of Waterman Mountain, in the Ironwood Forest National Monument area.  The exact circumstances of the crash are uncertain at this time according to the FAA.

After the crash one passenger identified as Edwin Nettleton (58), a radio engineer, called 911 to report the crash and advise that he was afraid the helicopter wreckage would fall over a cliff if he attempted to climb out.  He also expressed his concern about fire.  Nettleton told dispatchers that he suffered a broken wrist in the crash.

According the rescuers on scene the helicopter did apparently tumble 100 to 150 yards down the side of the mountain before it came to rest against a tree. 

While the helicopter crash investigation is in the very early stages and it is unknown if weather played a factor, there were some reports of a hail storm approximately 3 miles from the crash site, around the time of the crash.  However, records at the Marana airport, closest to the crash site showed that winds there were calm.  

In the past the Pima County Sheriff's Department operated one MD 530F helicopter, which the same make and model helicopter reported to be involved in the crash. 

The MD 500 series helicopter is a reliable, and rugged 4 passenger helicopter well suited for off field and rescue work in- rugged terrain.  The MD 530F is the preferred patrol helicopter for many agencies including the San Diego Sheriff's Department.  One of the things that makes the MD530F popular among pilots is it's reputation for survivability in crashes. 

The Pima County Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit was featured in an article here at Police Helicopter Pilot.com back in January of 2010. 

Police Helicopter Pilot sends it's condolences to the family of the pilot, Loren Leonberger.  RIP


#6. The UFO at Flight Altitude: One day about 2 years ago I was on the pilot side of the helicopter flying patrol over the City of Escondido California when I see something go by my door. Always on the lookout for other air traffic, this unknown object sent me into a hyper vigilant state until I could determine what it was. After a little evasive action I entered a nice wide orbit and got the object back into view for both myself and the TFO to keep an eye on. Sure enough it was a standard beach variety kite, only it was flying about 800' agl over the city. It was not easy but we tracked the kite string back to a strip mall on the west side of the city. An Escondido PD motor unit contacted the wayward kite flyer. It was a Chinese business man trying to attract attention to the Chinese bakery he just opened. Don't know if kite string wrapped around the rotor head would bring a helicopter down, but we sure didn't want to find out on this day. Ok, that was not whacked out of your gourd crazy, (that's why it's number six) but still crazy.


#5 Mercedes Benz BBQ Style: One sunny morning my partner and I were on patrol when we got word that CHP was in pursuit of a car jacking suspect south bound out of Orange County. The suspect was driving a new Mercedes Benz sedan, 4 door, black. We picked up the pursuit in Carlsbad California and began tracking it S/B on the I-5 freeway. The pursuit was crazy fast hitting speeds well up around 100 mph when traffic allowed. The driver did an outstanding job of turning the inside shoulder into another high speed traffic lane. Eventually the Mercedes got caught behind a line of concrete barriers in a construction zone, and came head to head with several pieces of heavy equipment on the inside shoulder. He was completely trapped.

The driver took the foot and toe express over the center median and dodged his way through north bound traffic, which caused my partner and I to wince several times as many a vehicle came close to sending him to that the big house in the sky. The driver made his way into a quiet upscale neighborhood going from house to house and yard to yard trying his best to avoid the pesky police helicopter doing tight felony orbits directly over his head.

At about two minutes into the foot chase I glanced back to where the Mercedes Benz set trapped on the freeway shoulder to see it fully engulfed in flames. It was crazy surreal. The car did nothing to deserve this fate, it was parked peacefully on the shoulder it experienced an episode of spontaneous combustion. The black smoke pouring from the fully engulfed Mercedes Benz added a nice ambiance to the rest of our foot chase. The suspect finished off his little run with a play date with the nice police doggy. This was crazy good.

#4 Car Falls Out of Space Through Roof of Building- Seriously: One balmy summers eve we were on patrol over the sleepy hamlet of Vista California when we heard the Fire Department and deputies from the Vista Patrol station respond to a fire alarm in a commercial district of the city. It certainly was not a call for the police helicopter so we went about minding our own business waiting for the big one to come in. As units arrived on scene however we began to hear mutterings of a vehicle that was setting inside the business. Even more interesting was that the vehicle apparently entered through the roof. Say what? This made it all the more suspicious since the commercial area was pretty much flat, and there were no multi story parking structures in the area. Well we just had to see what this was all about for ourselves.

We trotted right on over and put our big spotlight down on the roof of the building. Sure enough there was a great big hole. And setting right there at the bottom of the hole was a car. A stolen car to be exact. It seems that somebody drove the stolen car to the business then used a large industrial grade fork lift to pick up the car and maneuver it over to the side of the building- lifting it as high into the air as possible, then dropping it through the roof of the structure, (OK so it didn't really fall from space but it might as well have.) Who would do such a thing? I think an angry former employee was at the top of the suspect list!

#3 Incredible Crazy Meteor Shower On Night Vision Goggles: If you think about it there is only a tiny percentage of the entire worlds population who get to experience night flight on night vision goggles. That would mostly be helicopter pilots- and then only military, medical, and police helicopter pilots/crews. Yes I am sure there are a few others individuals who get to experience this amplified natural phenomenon, but for the most part that is it.

Remember now that night vision goggles work by amplifying the ambient light somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 times (just pick whatever number works best for you.) What this means is that on a clear night on patrol in San Diego we can look north and see the commercial air traffic lined up on approach to LAX in Los Angeles. Powerful stuff I say!

Now bring on the meteor showers. These meteor showers only come around so often and if you are lucky enough to be scheduled on the night crew, at the height of one of these events of nature then strap in, sit back and enjoy because you are in for one hell-uva light show! Let me explain it this way. Some of the meators appear bright enough and close enough that for a split second your mind is telling you to take corrective action with the helicopter to avoid a collision. Now that's crazy!

#2 Perp Takes AR-15 Round to the Head But is Unfazed: Ok "perp" really is not police jargon that I have ever heard, (at least on the west coast) so I just threw it in for you CSI fans. Ok, so bad guy steals truck and goes on a mid morning burglarizing campaign on the outskirts of Escondido California and he doesn't really seem to care who sees him. This is probably due to the natural diet of methamphetamines coursing through his blood stream.

So patrol deputy in car, bad guy in stolen truck, and Sheriff's helicopter crew all meet up at the same intersection at about the same time. You guessed it, short pursuit during which the meth head finds himself trapped up a long driveway that leads to a single residence where one little old lady lives. Realizing the situation he is in, the bad guy does what any of us would do, start ramming the patrol car!

Hey why does it look like the windshield of that truck is giving off powder puffs of glass. Perhaps it's .223 rounds creating this phenomenon I am witnessing. Why yes that's exactly what that is, little .223 rounds sent down range by the deputy who did not appreciate being assaulted. Thinking that the "perp" just checked out of this world I was shocked to see him open the door, step out, and politely prone himself out on the ground. Guess the deputy missed.

Now since the deputy was by himself, and the little old lady had all of her cars parked in the garage, and since she had a great big old drive way, my pilot momentarily parked our helicopter behind the patrol car long enough to let me climb out. I placed the handcuffs on said crook while the patrol deputy continued to hold him at gunpoint.

After all was calm and serene we noticed just a trickle of blood on the side of the parolee's face so I assumed it was just a small cut from broken glass. Wrong; Emergency room doctor advised that he took a round in the head, or a major part of a round, but it apparently did a little jig and did not penetrate the skull. And what did the non-courteous driver have to say? "You guys did the right thing- You guys did the right thing." Seriously, that's what he was mumbling. Crazy!

#1 And the number one craziest thing (that I can print) that I have seen from the cockpit of a police helicopter- involves a Sheriff's K9, a Man Hole Cover, and well yes- a Naked Man. The story goes like this.

Once again we are on patrol over that sleepy little hamlet of Vista California. We hear over the radio that a deputy is in a fight with a bad guy in a local park. Units are rolling code 3 to assist their fellow deputy, and we too are pedalling the helicopter as fast as we can. During the struggle and his attempt to escape the deputy, the suspect's shirt is ripped off. Just as cover units are arriving on scene the suspect breaks free and runs into a man size storm drain opening (where part of the city's storm drain system opens up into a creek.) One of the first units on scene is a Sheriff's K9 handler who releases his dog- just as the bad guy enters the darkened tunnel. Bad guy and police dog disappear into the dark underbelly of the City with K9 handler and cover deputy in foot pursuit to catch up.

For about the next five minutes the underground foot pursuit unfolds punctuated only by the occassional garbled transmissions from the pursuing deputies. After what seemed like forever a clear transmission made it through to dispatch. The deputies advised that they they had the suspect in custody and were coming up out of a manhole cover, but they had not idea where they were. The first deputy quickly obtained an address and radioed it to dispatch. A few seconds later and we were orbiting the tiny street and open man hole cover where the suspect and K9 deputy had yet to emerge.

What I saw next was damn near disturbing. Here comes the suspect up out of the man hole, stark naked, not even a sock- with his hands cuffed behind him. Now you are probably thinking what I was thinking. How do you climb a ladder with your hands cuffed behind you. There had to be somebody below giving him a push. I'm saying these deputies deserved an award for what they went through to get their man.

So where did the clothes go? Apparently every shred of clothing was ripped off of the suspect's body by the angry police dog, in the darkened bowls of the under city. The K9 deputy later said that the suspect was in a state of sheer terror, almost in shock from his encounter with the underground monster. Naked handcuffed man emerging from a man hole in the middle of the street; The #1 craziest thing I ever saw from the cockpit of a police helicopter!



Sheriff's Helicopter Experiences In Flight Emergency

A View From Above

A Guest Article by Scott Bligh

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

The book says you’re allowed to fly up to 152 knots in ASTREA’s MD-530F helicopter. But can you, really? Well yes you can, if you get up really high, lower the nose, point it at the ground and wait you may actually reach 152 knots or 175 MPH. That’s .25 Mach or about 1/5th the speed of sound. Impressive I know.

The ASTREA day crew was in the Valley Center area heading for San Marcos to assist with a 211 bank call when they did what’s called "trading altitude for airspeed." If you remember your physics classes, altitude is like potential energy. It’s like money in the bank which you can use when needed. As the altitude (potential energy) decreases, the speed (kinetic energy) increases. As the ASTREA 1 crew of Kevin Randall and Jay Pavlenko was turning this potential energy into kinetic energy to get to that 211 call quicker, Jay noticed a "windshield anomaly," a bulge in the windshield directly in-line with his head. The windshields on our helicopters are essentially Plexiglas. Not real thick and not super strong but, until this day, certainly able to withstand the wind.

Having only been in the unit a couple weeks, he wasn’t too sure what to make of it but thought it a good idea to bring it to Kevin’s attention. Jay asked, "Is this normal?" Kevin looked over to see the windscreen bulging into the cockpit. Noting the airspeed at 122 knots, well within published limitations, Deputy Randall lowered the collective and eased back on the cyclic, essentially raising the nose to reduce the airspeed. He was too late, however, as the window imploded into Jay’s face at just under 140 MPH.

With the additional wind entering just the right side of the cockpit, the helicopter’s nose swung to the right requiring the addition of left pedal to regain "balanced flight." Deputy Randall continued to slow the aircraft to below hurricane force winds and check on Jay. He still had his head attached and no arterial spray was observed as they continued for landing at the San Marcos Patrol Station.

Inside view of missing windscreen on a San Diego Sheriff patrol helicopter.As you can see by the pictures, the edges of this glass are sharp. Jay was wearing his helmet visor in the down position and was afforded its protection which he described as saving his eyes. We have tinted visors for when the sky is bright and clear visors for night time or cloudy days. If this doesn’t demonstrate why they are important, I don’t know what does.

Safety equipment; it does a body good.

Scott Bligh is a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot turned deputy sheriff.  He has been assigned to the San Diego Sheriff's ASTREA Unit for approximately 6 years.