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.


The Aviation Unit supports all facets of the Sheriff's Office and is part of Special Operations Division of the Homeland Security Bureau, led by Capt Robert Allen. (L–R) County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, Allen and Chief Pilot Sgt Robert Lucas at the PBSO hangar.

Once fully qualified as a copilot, when a slot becomes available the deputy will start the "pilot track" which begins with attendance at Bell's initial 407-qualification school at the factory. From that point, additional flight time and experience with a unit CFI will lead eventually to full PIC qualification and release to the line as an aircraft commander.

PBSO deputy/pilots work a schedule that generally follows 4 days on, 4 days off. The first 2 days are 10-hr day shifts from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm, followed by two 14-hr night shifts starting at 5:00 pm. This schedule equates to about 13 days of duty each month. In addition to the standard benefits a PBSO deputy earns, including a take-home car, pilots receive aviation assignment pay.

Pilots fly approximately 700 hrs a year, with much of the time being logged during the night shift when law enforcement activity peaks. In addition to the required police recurrent training and firearms qualification that all deputies must complete, pilots attend factory recurrent training school at Bell Helicopter for ground training and flight instruction every year.

Activity on the line

Much of the unit's work centers around supporting other special ops units and road patrol officers. The flight roster on a given day may include training, scheduled flights and routine patrol. Allen notes, "We have gotten a very positive response from the road units to having the helicopter on routine patrol," which allows quick response to calls for support.

When not flying, the aircraft and crew remain at the PBI hangar and can launch within 5 min of a callout, responding anywhere in the county in no more than 14 min, according to Lucas.

The requirement for all deputy/pilots to serve in road patrol and other ground-based assignments before joining the Air Unit gives them the perspective and knowledge about how best to support their colleagues in the field.

Deputy/Pilot Tom Breneman, now in his 6th year with the Air Unit, worked undercover for years in the narcotics division. The Aviation Unit also does a significant amount of its work with canine units—in these scenarios road officers secure a perimeter, keeping a subject contained in the general area, the helicopter suppresses and locates the offender and the K9 team effects the arrest.

Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office recently opened its regional Fusion Center, headed by Scott Nugent, which houses all strategic planning and intelligence assets in a central location, tied to the outside through datalink, radar and real-time video from various locations throughout the county.

Law enforcement and other leaders can convene at the Fusion Center and have instant access to all the information they need to make strategic decisions when managing the law enforcement and emergency response plans for the county. Key to the Fusion Center will be the ability to integrate live video downlink from PBSO helicopters to decisionmakers at the center.

Maintaining the fleet

Deputy/Pilots David Humphrey, Susan Horne and Tom Breneman are Sheriff's Office veterans. Every pilot at PBSO serves in road patrol and other ground-based roles before applying to the Aviation Unit.

Aviation Unit aircraft are maintained in immaculate condition. According to Lucas, the unit uses a 5-year refurbishment/10-year replacement cycle. Two PBSO Bell 407s have already returned to Bell Helicopter in Tennessee (formerly Edwards & Associates) for refurb work.

The sheriff's aircraft are maintained under the leadership of Dir of Maintenance Mike Beedy, who joined PBSO in 1983 as the sole mechanic after spending time in both the military and civilian world maintaining helicopters. Beedy is also an active mechanic on the floor. Most maintenance work is done inhouse by Beedy and the other 3 mechanics.

The spotless nature of the operation starts with all the aircraft being housed in the climate-controlled hangar when not flying, the floors being coated with protective material and the mechanics' MAC toolboxes being neat, clean and organized.

One of the mechanics, Deputy Glen Maxwell, is a 33-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office and has served as both a mechanic and pilot since joining the unit in 1980. The maintenance team keeps 2 of the 407s available for operations at all times, and works to keep the 3rd aircraft available at least 50% of the time.

Dispatch reliability for all aircraft exceeds 99%.

PBSO maintains the aircraft under Part 91 and follows Bell maintenance protocols, according to Beedy. "We look at downtime and operational availability when scheduling maintenance," Beedy adds. "Most of the work is done inhouse or as component exchange."

Major assemblies like powerplants are removed and shipped to vendors such as StandardAero or Rolls-Royce Engine Services in Oakland CA for overhaul. Traceability of parts is a key driver in this choice and of significant importance to Beedy, who buys only OEM parts and not STC components.

Avionics maintenance continues to be the biggest challenge faced by PBSO's maintenance group, who find that keeping an adequate stock of avionics and other aircraft spares improves operational reliability significantly.

Generally, 2 mechanics are on duty Monday through Friday, with 1 mechanic available on the weekend. Schedules are four 10-hr shifts, covering 14 hours per day—for major issues a callout can occur at any time. The maintenance staff on duty on a given day participate in the shift change briefing with the pilots to bring everyone up to date on the status of the aircraft.

Beedy's maintenance team enjoys a positive working relationship with the aircrews, built on mutual respect. "If we work on it, they will fly it," Beedy offers. "We don't run anything to the limits and we have good funding for our operation." He adds, "We have a very supportive sheriff who is pro-aviation, and we don't really want for anything."


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