AStar B3, 3 Bell 206Ls, Cessna 210 and 206 form Miami-Dade Police fleet

Largest local LE agency in southeastern US protects 2.4 million residents-and 10 million visitors a year.

By Brent Holman
ATP/CFI/Helo. Airbus A320, Bell 206L

MDPD Aviation Unit operates a Eurocopter AS350B3 AStar equipped for tactical operations-it is shown here flying over Biscayne Bay with the Miami skyline in the background. The unit also flies 3 Bell 206L4 LongRangers and 2 single-engine Cessnas for transport and surveillance.

Officer/Pilot Paul Wessel, a 28-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Dept (MDPD), spooled the turbine of the Bell 206L LongRanger to 100%, tweaked the governor and lifted off the pad at the OPF (Opa-Locka, Miami FL) police ramp into the cool, night air over Miami-Dade County.

Leveling off at 800 ft-his night-time noise abatement patrol altitude-he turned on the 16-million candlepower Spectrolab SX16 Nightsun searchlight. And left it on. For the remainder of his patrol, he scanned the beacon left and right as the helicopter flew overhead, bathing the buildings below in a brilliant light and dispelling the shadows that those with ill intent could use as concealment.

"The bad guys hate the light," Wessel states matter-of-factly. "When they see the light they know that the helicopter's there-and that it greatly increases their chance of going to jail." Wessel makes it a habit to use the searchlight on routine patrol to increase police presence in the neighborhood or industrial area he is flying over-just like a patrol car would do on street patrol, only to a much greater extent.

"The helicopter with the searchlight acts as a force multiplier in crime prevention," according to Wessel, who regularly illuminates schools, churches, commercial buildings and other likely targets of criminal activity while he flies his late night patrols.

A tangible example of the value of this kind of proactive stance occurred one night while flying routine patrol-a fast-moving SUV caught Wessel's trained eye. Experience told him it might be a stolen car, and a determined sweep of light with the Nightsun confirmed his suspicions that the vehicle's occupants were up to no good.

"Once they saw the light, they briefly attempted to elude me, stopping under a tree and bailing out of the car," he recalls. Wessel hovered overhead and kept the light trained on the driver, who had made a poor fashion choice that evening by wearing reflective sneakers.

An arrest by ground units brought the chase to a quick end, sending what turned out to be a murderer to jail for life. Wessel's tactics produce results-like all his colleagues at the Miami-Dade Police Aviation Unit, he is a proactive officer who makes cases with his counterparts on the ground beat and gets the bad guys off the street.

Largest PD in the Southeast

Miami-Dade Police Dept Aviation Unit pilots, mechanics and staff on the ramp at the OPF police hangar. In the background are (L-R) the unit's Eurocopter AS350B3 AStar, Cessna P210 Riley Rocket and a Bell 206L4 LongRanger.

MDPD is the largest local law enforcement agency in the southeast and the 8th largest in the US. It protects 2.4 million residents and 10 million annual visitors across almost 2000 square miles of land, bay, ocean and swamp.

Miami- Dade County also includes MIA (Intl, Miami FL)-one of the busiest airports in the nation-and the Port of Miami-the largest cruise ship terminal on the planet. In the last year for which data was available, MDPD received more than 2.2 million 911 calls from people needing help.

Providing airborne support to the 3000 sworn officers making up the MDPD is the responsibility of the Aviation Unit, led by Capt Michael Cundle of the MDPD Special Patrol Bureau and Lt Jesus Ramirez, head of the Aviation Unit.

Sergeants Tom Turpin and Andrew Cohen complete the unit's leadership team. They share responsibility for the operational administration of the group's 10 pilots and manage the unit's 6 aircraft.

The current fleet, which is split between OPF and TMB (Kendall-Tamiami, Miami FL), consists of 3 Bell 206L4 LongRangers and a Eurocopter AS350B3 AStar, plus a Cessna 206 Stationair and a Cessna P210 Riley Rocket.

Three more AStars are on order for delivery through 2011 and will replace the LongRangers as they are acquired. Four maintenance technicians cover both bases under Aircraft Technician Supervisor John Murman.

This team has accounted for over 10,000 flight hours per helicopter since 1994 as well as significant law enforcement activity. In the 2007-08 time frame, for example, MDPD Aviation Unit was involved in 988 felony arrests, 206 stolen vehicle recoveries and the location of 178 missing persons.

MDPD is a proactive air unit that continues to increase its capabilities through the acquisition of the best technology available and broaden the scope of its mission by supporting the specialized law enforcement teams throughout the agency.

Stiff competition

Pilot Sgt Tom Turpin is a supervisor responsible for operations and training at MDPD Aviation Unit. This is "absolutely the best assignment of my career," he says. "Now I never want to retire!" The sentiment is echoed by Officer/Pilot Carlos Hernandez, the unit's most senior pilot:

"It's a fun job, every day is different and you know you are accomplishing something." It's a highly competitive job to get, too. All MDPD pilots must be sworn officers first-and each of the 10 officers and 2 sergeants currently assigned to the unit has about 20 years with the agency.

Once assigned to the Aviation Unit, they rarely leave until retirement from the department. Some of the reasons why pilot positions are so sought after are the high quality of the equipment they fly, the wide variety of police work they are involved in, good work schedules and competitive pay.

Ramirez explains the hiring and training process that will take place when the next retirement opens up a pilot position. "The primary requirement is that the candidate must be a sworn officer with MDPD and off of probation-after that, interested individuals complete a competitive interview process."

A commercial certificate with helicopter and instrument ratings is no longer required. However, MDPD currently has more than 3000 sworn officers, so competition for the few pilot slots that become available is intense.

The candidate pool is highly qualified too. Officer/Pilot Bruce Beer was selected for the unit after serving in the US Navy as a fighter pilot, flying for a major airline and working the street with MDPD for 5 years.


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