Blue Eagle Helicopter of San Antonio adds fire and rescue to police anticrime mission
Eurocopter AS350 AStar and 4 Sikorsky/Schweizer 333s enhance safety and security in south Texas.
By Mike Potts
Pro Pilot SW Associate Editor
Blue Eagle's Eurocopter A350 AStar passes over Mission Concepción, 1 of 5 missions on the San Antonio River. When the river occasionally floods out of its banks, Blue Eagle is equipped to rescue victims off of rooftops if necessary.
It was summer 2011 and after nearly 2 years of drought in South Texas wild fires were starting to burn out of control.
To the northwest of San Antonio, where the Texas hill country starts to intersect with suburbia, San Antonio area firefighters were struggling to keep the fires from starting to engulf houses.
But help came from the sky in the form of the Blue Eagle—San Antonio Police Dept's helicopter detail—using recently-acquired water-dump capability with a Bambi Bucket suspended from its Eurocopter AS350 AStar.
"In a 1-week period there were 2 large fires where we used the helicopter to bring water to places we couldn't get to with trucks or even on foot with chain saws," recalls EMS Lieutenant Mike Mumme of San Antonio Fire Dept (SAFD). "I know if we didn't have them we probably would have lost some homes."
For the men and women of the Blue Eagle it marked another chapter in a growing list of accomplishments as the helicopter unit has steadily added new equipment and expanded capabilities over the past decade, including firefighting, water rescue and drug interdiction. These are in addition to more typical police helicopter activities such as FLIR searches, anticrime and traffic-related activity.
The detail has come a long way from its origins performing part-time traffic monitoring in a piston-powered Hughes 300 it shared with the Bexar (pronounced "bear") County Sheriff's Office.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus is justifiably proud of his helicopter detail, which augments his department of 2200 officers who maintain order in the city of 1.3 million people spread over 412 square miles. Last year the detail answered 8552 calls, participated in 649 arrests and facilitated the recovery of more than $2.2 million in stolen property.
"Blue Eagle is a force multiplier and provides our officers with a tactical advantage we could achieve in no other way," says McManus. "The evolution of our helicopter unit has also led us to partner with our fire department and incorporate the City of San Antonio's first-ever helo team for land and water-based short-hauls. Our helicopter unit and pilots are second to none."
Today Blue Eagle is a team of 24 people operating 5 helicopters—a Eurocopter AS350 AStar and 4 Schweizer 333s—from a base at SSF (Stinson, San Antonio TX) on the south side of the city. The team consists of 2 sergeants, 18 patrolmen and 4 mechanics and operates 24/7.
The detail operates in 2 shifts, from 0600–1600 and from 1600–0200, with a sergeant and 9 patrolmen permanently assigned to each. Two patrolmen rotate to cover the 0200–0600 segment. The mechanics work from 0745–1630.
Members of San Antonio Police Dept Helicopter Detail—Blue Eagle—gather in front of their Eurcopter AS350 AStar and 1 of 4 Schweizer 333s at their operating base at the approach end of Runway 9 at SSF. All officers earned a pilot's license before being selected to join the detail.
Sgt David Torres leads the day shift and is the detail commander. A 26-year veteran of San Antonio Police Dept (SAPD), Torres joined Blue Eagle in 1991. He learned to fly helicopters in the National Guard where he was an instructor pilot in Bell OH58s and Sikorsky UH60s.
Between 2007 and 2009 he took a leave of absence from Blue Eagle for a deployment in Iraq where he flew medevac missions in Blackhawks and served as safety officer for his squadron. He recently retired after 28 years with the Guard.
Sgt Patrick McNamara is also a 26-year veteran of SAPD and leads the night shift. Before joining Blue Eagle he had a wide range of assignments and responsibilities, including traffic, homicide, SWAT, and vice and narcotics. He joined Blue Eagle in 2003 after being promoted to sergeant and earning a fixed-wing private pilot's license. McNamara served as detail commander during the period Torres was deployed in Iraq.
The name Blue Eagle is a partial acronym—EAGLE standing for "excellence in air-to-ground law enforcement." It began in Aug 1971 with a single Hughes 300 which it shared with the Bexar County Sheriff's Office. Operations were based at SSF and the primary mission was dealing with traffic issues.
Two years later operations were relocated to XS82 (Del Rio Heliport, San Antonio TX) located on top of the Marina Parking Garage in downtown San Antonio for easier coordination with police headquarters. The value of the helicopter operation was immediately obvious, and a 2nd Hughes 300 was added in early 1974.
Budgetary issues later that year led to the separation of operations between SAPD and the county, with each department retaining 1 of the Hughes 300s. SAPD quickly added a 2nd Hughes 300 and by 1975 the detail consisted of a sergeant and 6 patrol officers operating Monday through Friday from 0600–2200. Inhouse training procedures were adopted at that time, using a program adopted from the US Army program in use at Fort Rucker AL.
Graduating to turbines
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus describes Blue Eagle as a force multiplier for his 2200-officer department.
In 1977 a drug interdiction grant allowed the department to step up to turbine equipment with the addition of a Hughes 500C. The detail would operate in this configuration for the next 2 decades.
Then in 1995 a chain of events began that would change the SAPD helicopter detail profoundly and help mold it into the multifaceted operation that exists today. The key first step was the acquisition of the detail's first forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera system—a FLIR 2000.