Keeping Arizona skies safe

Fleet of 5 AS350B3s, 3 A119s, 1 A109 and 1 PC12 NG help Phoenix Police Dept maintain law and order.

By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo. Challenger 604,
Bell 222/412

Phoenix PD's AgustaWestland A109E departs on a search-and-rescue mission with its joint Fire Dept/Police Dept aircrew aboard.

Phoenix Police Department has a long history of effective law enforcement. Years ago, PD managers set a high standard of excellence for their officers and, to ensure their continuing support, established close working relationships with city government.

To this day their efforts are supported enthusiastically by Phoenix City Council, even as it grapples with the fiscal challenges of a post-2008 public sector economy. In the midst of serious revenue shortfalls, the City of Phoenix continues to provide strong support for its police and fire departments.

Department involvement in aviation began almost 40 years ago. The first aircraft arrived in the early 1970s—a Hughes 300C factory equipped as a law enforcement aircraft and a Cessna 172 with a tactical radio and a pair of binoculars.

Today, they seem like antiques when compared to current-generation turbine helicopters equipped with satellite communications and navigation, uplink and downlink, and tracking systems that can follow a person on foot through fog, trees and even hidden inside a structure.

The Hughes 300's tiny console had a single receptacle for a police portable radio. The only other mission accessories were a siren/PA box taken from a patrol car, and a 4-bulb searchlight with a big handlebar to point it at a fleeing suspect.

Even with that minimal equipment the 300C struggled to fly in the scorching Arizona summer. The little Lycoming 4-cylinder engine ran at 3200 rpm with temperatures usually close to the red line. The sand chewed away the leading edges of the delicate main rotor blades within a fraction of their projected service lives. Despite the 300's limitations, Phoenix PD's Air Support Unit amassed an impressive record over thousands of hours of service.

Phoenix PD remained a loyal Hughes—then MD Helicopter—customer for decades, graduating into the Model 500, and later its NOTAR variants. But the 500 couldn't carry the ever-growing equipment packages that had grown essential to the airborne law enforcement mission.

The spares pipeline shrank to the point where Police Dept maintenance technicians were cannibalizing one aircraft after another to keep them in service. The day came when the Air Support Unit couldn't field the aircraft essential to its mission.

(L–R) Flight Sgt Keith Politte, Training Sgt Joel Tranter, Flight Sgt Karen Vance, Unit Commander Lieut Pat Tortorici, Chief Pilot Airplane Operations Ofcr Andrew Eagleton, and Chief Pilot Helicopter Operations Ofcr Phil Tilford with the flagships of the Phoenix PD Air Support Unit.

Unit managers had been updating City Council members on their challenges with vendor support. Council members were ready as the crisis unfolded, and issued a public bond offering to fund replacement of the entire fleet. The bond issue was voted in overwhelmingly by the citizens of Phoenix.

The City Council instructed the Air Support Unit to avoid ever again being dependent on a single helicopter manufacturer, and the request for bids specified that 2 vendors would be selected.

Eurocopter and AgustaWestland were the winners—Eurocopter to supply AS350B3 AStars and Agusta­Westland A119 Koalas for patrol. AgustaWestland would also supply an A109 for search and rescue.

The first new aircraft—the AS350­B3s—began arriving in 2004, and as they entered service the last vestiges of the MD fleet were phased out. The sole remaining unit of the original Hughes fleet is a single Model 300 residing in a corner of the hangar, awaiting its last mission—to hang from the ceiling of a police aviation museum.

Today the fleet consists of 5 AS­350s, 3 A119 Koalas and 1 A109E. The A109 is owned in partnership with Phoenix Fire Dept—an active collaborator and joint operations team player in the Air Support Unit. The partnership is a model of public service management innovation, maximizing the deployment of expensive but highly effective assets in support of both law enforcement and fire protection missions.

Phoenix firefighters are trained active Air Support Unit crewmembers. Their duty assignment is 2 locations within the city. One of these firefighters launches with the A109 on every SAR mission.

Chief Pilot Helicopter Ops Phil Tilford discusses the Air Support Unit's extensive safety programs and its commitment to them.

They act as observers during the search phase of a mission, then operate the hoist or, when the victim is badly injured, send an aircraft rescue technician (ART) down the hoist cable to recover them.

The paramedic will treat the victim in flight and begin stabilizing him/her as the A109 delivers the patient to ground care units. The SAR helicopter is capable of flying to a hospital but this is done only in extreme cases.

The fixed-wing side of the Air Support Unit started out with a single Cessna 172. This was used as a surveillance platform, tracking drug dealers, burglars and robbers on their daily rounds, the observer using gyrostabilized binoculars to keep continuous eyes on the target. Later a 182 joined the fleet, and administrative transport flights became another part of the Air Support Unit's mission mix.

A Cessna P210 joined the Air Support Unit 2 years ago. It is equipped with a FLIR unit with long-range camera and infrared capabilities. The Police Dept's investigative units keep the aircraft busy not only with surveillance of criminal enterprises throughout the city but also flying investigators on out-of-town assignments.

In 2010, after a multiyear development program, funding was secured through completion of the bond issue referred to above and a Pilatus PC12 NG Spectre was purchased. Its mission is long-term wide-ranging surveillance supporting investigators pursuing drug dealers, illegal alien smugglers and even terror suspects.

"The PC12 NG greatly expands the unit's surveillance capabilities and extends our ability to support the department's investigative units over a much wider range," says Chief Fixed-Wing Pilot Andrew Eagleton.

"With the smaller Cessnas we often had to discontinue a surveillance mission to refuel and it was always difficult to get re-established on the target afterward. The PC12 in maximum-endurance mode can stay aloft for several hours, so we can remain overhead at altitude, providing optimum support."


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