INTERNATIONAL OPS

St Louis Metro Air Support Unit

Unique multi-jurisdictional activity flies 4 MD 500Es, 2 Hughes OH6s and a Cessna 172 to protect citizens of the "Gateway to the West."

By Ken Solosky
ATP/Helo/CFI
NYPD, Chief Pilot (retired)


Members of the St Louis Metro Air Support (L-R) Bob Lasinski, Dan Cunningham, Chris Gries, Ronald Breen stand in front of their MD500E fleet.

When you hear the name, "St Louis," images of the city's iconic Gateway Arch, its nickname "Gateway to the West" or the legendary St Louis Cardinals baseball team might come to mind. As of the 2010 census, the population of St Louis was 319,294. A 2012 estimate put the population at 318,172, making it the 58th-largest US city in 2012.

Greater St Louis is the 19th-largest metropolitan area in the US, with a population of 2,900,605. Situated on both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, it is a major east coast shipping port. Airborne law enforcement services in Greater St Louis are provided by a unique multi-jurisdictional aviation unit known as the St Louis Metro Air Support Unit. This unit is composed of 3 law enforcement depts: the Metropolitan Police, the St Louis County Police and the St Charles County Sheriff's Office.

This arrangement allows the unit to provide aerial coverage while also patrolling the 1600 sq miles of the combined jurisdictions. Currently operating out of SUS (Spirit of St Louis MO), the unit utilizes 7 aircraft, including 4 MD 500E helicopters, 2 Hughes OH6 helicopters and 1 Cessna 172 fixed-wing aircraft.

St Louis Metro Air Support Unit is staffed with personnel from all 3 agencies. County police provide 4 police officer/pilots and a sergeant. City police provide 4 police officer/pilots and a sergeant. Sheriff's office provides a deputy/pilot. Command and control of the unit comes under the St Louis County Police Dept and the unit commander is a St Louis County captain. All aircraft maintenance is provided by 2 civilian A&P mechanics from the county police.

History

A St Louis Metro Air Support MD500E participates in a recovery of a "victim" during a training mission.

In 1970, the St Louis County Police Dept began aviation law enforcement operations with a Bell 47 helicopter. A decade and a half later, in 1985, the unit acquired 2 MD500E helicopters.

While the unit was very successful and proactive, they often encountered financial constraints. In the meantime, St Louis City Police began airborne law enforcement flight operations in 1996 using a military surplus Bell OH58. Both operations were independent of each other.

In 2003, St Louis County Police Aviation Unit Commander Captain Kurt Frisz began looking for ways to better fund and operate his aviation unit. Frisz developed a business model that would share expenses and operations among the 3 law enforcement agencies operating in and around Greater St Louis.

Frisz presented his model and it was warmly received by both the law enforcement agencies and the local politicians. Frisz also contacted neighboring St Charles County Sheriff's Dept with agreement to participate in this new program. In 2004, the St Louis Metro Air Support Unit was born.

Since then, regionalization has led to a surprising growth in grant funding. Recognizing the scope of the St Louis Metro Air Support Unit, the federal government has been generous in awarding grants. Captain Frisz, now a commander in the Special Operations Division, is particularly grateful for the strong support of the top cops from all 3 participating agencies. "County Police Chief Tim Fitch, City Police Chief Sam Dotson and Sheriff Tom Neer have simply been incredibly supportive of this program.

In fact, they have helped secure almost $6 million in direct funding to support this unit," remarked Frisz. To this day, the Metro Air Support Unit stands as a great example of how combining resources, assets and funding can produce a first class airborne law enforcement unit.

Personnel, fleet and missions

St Louis Metro Air Support MD500E patrols overhead the City of St Louis. Busch Stadium, home of the St Louis Cardinals, can be seen in the background.

Sgt Dan Cunningham, the unit's chief pilot, absolutely loves the MD500E. "It is the perfect law enforcement aircraft," commented Cunningham. "It is very maneuverable, agile and quick. We can fly searches and pursuits with a lot of confidence and capability." All aircraft are equipped with FLIR 8500 infrared cameras and Vislink downlink systems. Aviation unit officers use the downlink system to transmit images and information to ground officers during searches and tactical operations.

AeroComputers mapping system gets its fair share of work in this multi-jurisdictional unit since officers might not be completely familiar with a scene that is not in their home jurisdiction. For surveillance, administrative transports and traffic enforcement, the unit also operates a Cessna 172. "Occasionally we have the need to send an investigator to another city for a pressing investigation so we just find it is easier to send them there in the 172," explains Cunningham.

From 8 am until 2 am the unit operates out of SUS (Spirit of St Louis MO), and an on-call team covers the 2 am to 8 am shift. Sgt Cunningham notes, "We are down a few pilots from our authorized strength so we had to cut back a little. We saw that the hrs between 2 am and 8 am were the light times in terms of requests for airborne support, so we decided to cover that on-call. We hope when we return to full staffing we will be a 24/7 airport based operation again."

Hrs flown and pilot requirements

St Louis Metro Air Support Unit averages just shy of 3000 flight hrs a year. In 2012 the unit responded to 3584 calls for service, was first on the scene of 1137 calls, assisted in 282 arrests, found 17 missing persons and helped recover almost $1 million worth of property.

There is no maximum time a crew can fly per their 8 hr shift, but weather permitting they must fly a minimum of 4 hrs. All assigned flight crews are commissioned officers from one of the 3 agencies. Although both crew members are pilots, one acts as a tactical flight officer during patrol missions. Potential pilots typically have at least 3 years of police experience before being assigned to the aviation unit.

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