SPECIAL UNIT PROFILE
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Aviation Unit—ready, willing and able
PBSO uses 3 Bell 407s and a Cessna 206 Stationair to patrol and protect Florida's Gold Coast.
By Brent Holman
ATP/CFI/Helo. Airbus A320, Bell 206L
Palm Beach employs the Bell 407 as the backbone of its law enforcement fleet, using the capability of the Cessna 206 as a surveillance platform.
One can almost hear Also Sprach Zarathustra—the theme used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—playing as the massive doors of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Aviation Unit hangar open slowly to reveal the immaculate space that houses 4 multimillion-dollar law enforcement aircraft tasked with protecting the citizens of the county.
Immaculate is the word for this cavernous 3-bay air-conditioned hangar at PBI (Intl, West Palm Beach FL). Every surface is spotless, the dispatch-ready Bell 407s shine, and the equipment and tools at the back of the building are organized meticulously.
Palm Beach Sheriff's Office (PBSO) Chief Pilot Sgt Robert Lucas notes the effort that goes into achieving this result. "Every Wednesday without exception, every staff member on duty—pilots, mechanics, and me—will wash and wax the aircraft, clean the hangar and shine the floor with the Sheriff's own Zamboni floor polisher," he says. "It's important for us to have a clean, safe environment to work in and we take personal pride in the aircraft we fly, so everyone participates."
PBSO didn't start at this high point, with spotless new equipment and facilities. In recent memory the pilots and crew were housed in a decades-old hangar and tired mobile homes, pressed into service as office space. Palm Beach County first received air support in 1969 with a Bell 206 used for traffic patrol and funded by a federal grant.
Deputy Pilot Chris Santa's father, a sergeant with PBSO at the time, was tapped to form the inaugural unit. While originally intended for traffic work, the helicopter's value to officers on the ground soon became obvious and the aircraft was quickly employed for general law enforcement purposes.
The sheriff at that time recognized the utility of the aircraft and formally established the PBSO Air Unit, keeping the JetRanger flying after the federal subsidy expired.
PBSO also supported fledgling HEMS operations in Palm Beach County early on, adding a 2nd aircraft—a Bell 206L LongRanger—in 1986 to better sustain the additional role. In 1990 the Sheriff's Office acquired a Bell 412SP to conduct enhanced emergency medical operations coincident with the opening of 2 trauma centers in Palm Beach.
Dubbed TraumaHawk, the 412 was flown by deputy pilots in a joint venture with Palm Beach County Fire & Rescue Dept.
This arrangement lasted until 1999, when TraumaHawk became an independent operation and PBSO focused on its core law enforcement mission. Since 2001 the unit has worked toward a common type rotary-wing fleet, with the Bell 407 at its center. On the fixed-wing side, PBSO operates a single Cessna 206 as a surveillance platform.
PBSO's Aviation Unit flies 3 Bell 407s and a Cessna 206, and boasts 12 pilots/copilots and 4 maintenance technicians.
When Sheriff Ric Bradshaw took office in 2005, the Aviation Unit had 2 helicopters and a confiscated Beech Baron B55. "The unit had no clear mission or role in day-to-day law enforcement—they were responsive only" Bradshaw explains. "My first goal was to get them well equipped and a significant, defined mission as the only airborne law enforcement in the county." Today, he adds, the unit has the resources it needs—and the right people.
Chief Pilot Lucas joined PBSO as a road patrol deputy in 1986, after a stint in the US Marine Corps, primarily because of his interest in aviation. Having already completed fixed-wing certification, Lucas had his eye on the Aviation Unit and was successful in transferring into aviation in 1990 as a helicopter copilot.
After nearly 2 decades flying the line in the Bell 206, 407 and 412, Lucas was promoted to sergeant and chief pilot in 2009.
In his supervisory role, Lucas is responsible for the 3 rotary-wing aircraft and the Cessna 206, 12 pilots and copilots, 4 maintenance technicians and the new facility that the unit moved into in 2008. Lucas reports to Capt Robert Allen, commander of the Special Operations Division of the PBSO Homeland Security Bureau.
"The Sheriff wants the helos flying—they are a support unit and are vital to the canine, SWAT and marine units we field," says Allen. The value of the helicopter to units like SWAT is immeasurable. "Simply put," says Allen, "the helicopters make the bad guys lie down. Once the helicopter is on scene it's a great suppression tool—the subjects will stay in the house."
Allen describes Sheriff Bradshaw's relationship with the unit as one of mutual commitment. Bradshaw sums it up by saying, "The nature of law enforcement today demands a well equipped, well trained unit. It's no longer a luxury—it's a necessity."
The pilot staff at PBSO is highly experienced—so much so, in fact, that over half are now eligible to retire from police work but have chosen to not to do so. Allen and Lucas both agree that "the pilots enjoy being here [and] they love their job."
Positions with the Aviation Unit are highly sought after and valued by deputies throughout the department. But to plan for the eventual attrition that will occur, Lucas maintains a list of interested eligible deputies who will likely be considered for openings as they happen.
"At a minimum we require a private pilot's certificate with an instrument rating in either an airplane or helicopter. To us, this demonstrates interest and commitment on the part of the applicant." Although the private is a minimum, competitive applicants will have much more.
When hiring begins, new pilots joining the Aviation Unit will initially join the "copilot track" and be qualified as a TFO, flying the aircraft and operating the law enforcement equipment. Copilots who do not yet have a helicopter rating will be assigned to a helicopter flight school for primary instruction, then return to the unit for further training once they receive their rating.