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.
Best of the best
Night Detail Shift Commander Sgt Patrick McNamara (L) and Detail Commander Sgt David Torres lead Blue Eagle. McNamara took temporary command while Torres was deployed to fly Blackhawk medevac missions in Iraq.
Blue Eagle pilots are drawn from the ranks of SAPD patrol officers. Candidates must have completed at least 4 years of service in the field with an exemplary record and also have acquired (on their own) a fixed or rotary-wing private pilot's certificate. "We want the best of the best," says Torres, "and we want to see a commitment from them before they can be considered."
Openings are infrequent because officers rarely transfer out of Blue Eagle. It is one of the most sought-after postings in SAPD.
Once selected, an officer starts out as an observer and also begins a formal internal training program that will lead to a commercial rotary-wing certificate. Over the next year the officer is brought along with an integrated curriculum of formal training and practical field experience as he/she is brought to the proficiency required of a Blue Eagle pilot.
Three officers hold additional CFI ratings and provide instruction. Pilots are trained to Part 91 standards in a program that Chief Flight Instructor Brittain says is similar to civilian helicopter training, but with an added element—the skills and techniques necessary to be a police pilot. "We teach them to fly the FAA way," he says, "then we teach them to fly the police way."
Offsite landings, pinnacle work and learning to position cameras and spotlights on targets while flying the aircraft are all skills that have to be mastered. Brittain says it typically takes about 250 hrs for an officer to achieve the proficiency and judgment to fly solo as PIC or carry passengers.
There is no instrument training because the department does not conduct IFR operations and none of the helicopters is IFR-equipped.
Like the men he trains, Brittain started as a patrol officer in 1990. He had been in the department about 3 years when he got a chance to take a familiarization ride. "As soon as we got in the air, I was hooked," he recalls. "I asked, 'How do I sign up for this?'"
He began fixed-wing flight training soon thereafter and earned a fixed-wing private certificate. In 1995 Brittain was accepted into the Blue Eagle.
In addition to training pilots and maintaining proficiency, there is continuous work to develop and maintain proficiency with the AirTEP and the Bambi Bucket. It takes practice, Brittain notes, to be able to drop a load of water precisely where you want it on a fire. Pilots have to judge aircraft speed, altitude and wind conditions, while being mindful to keep out of the trees.
(L–R) Dir of Maintenance Adam Garcia and Mechanics Kenneth Swickard, Nathan Cross and Jesse Aranda perform all maintenance on the Blue Eagle fleet except for major overhauls.
Blue Eagle helicopter maintenance has been done in-house since the AStar was added. Maintenance Dir Adam Garcia joined the detail in 2006. Previously the detail had relied on contract maintenance.
Garcia learned to work helicopters in the US Army, where he worked on Bell OH58s and Hughes (MD) MH6s, retiring in 2004. He earned an FAA A&P license while still in the Army and added an IA rating last year. Garcia and 3 assistants who work with him are City of San Antonio employees, not civilian members of SAPD.
Garcia maintains the Blue Eagle aircraft to Part 91 standards in accordance with the manufacturer's recommended maintenance program. All maintenance up to overhauls is performed inhouse.
The Rolls-Royce 250-C20Ws that power the 333s, along with the related accessories, are sent to Premier Turbines/Dallas Airmotive in Neosho MO. Blue Eagle owns six 250s and maintains one fully built up and ready for installation at all times. Gearbox work is handled at HSI in Janesville WI.
With just over 1200 hrs, the AStar has not yet required an overhaul, but plans are to send the engine to Turbomeca when the time comes. Any airframe issues will be referred to Eurocopter, although Garcia says the AStar has been very reliable so far and has had minimal maintenance issues.
Blue Eagle has developed over the years into a mature and valuable police helicopter operation that provides significant value to the communities it serves.
Mike Potts is an aviation consultant and freelance writer. He worked in corporate communications for Beech and Raytheon Aircraft between 1979 and 1997.