The Harford County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday officially unveiled its first helicopter and announced the creation of a new aviation unit, which underwent extensive flight training, to support the agency’s law enforcement efforts which will also have an aviation attorney on hand in case any issues or accidents arise.
The Bell OH-58 A-Plus, designated “Eagle 1,” was acquired through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, under which the DoD can transfer excess property to law enforcement agencies. Sheriff Jesse Bane estimated the cost of maintaining and operating the helicopter at $125,000 per year, funds which he said would be supplied through money seized from asset forfeiture and anti-drug operations.
“Air support is one of those technologies that is a force multiplier,” Bane said at a press event held at Forest Hill Airport, where the helicopter will be stationed.
Bane emphasized that no tax dollars would be used “now or in the foreseeable future” to fund the helicopter.
“It is the drug dealers of Harford County who will fund the total costs, directly and indirectly,” he said.
The part-time aviation unit has been in the works since 2010, when Bane said he formed a committee to study a proposal for such a unit prepared by a deputy, William McMillion. McMillion died in March, but several members of his family were on hand at Tuesday’s event and the helicopter’s registration number, N554HC, honors McMillion’s badge number, 554.
The helicopter will be flown by two deputies who have existing certification: Lt. Charles Carr, a 25-year veteran of the agency and former Army pilot who is instrument rated; and second deputy who was not identified due to his activities as an undercover officer but is a 16-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office and is a commercial-rated helicopter pilot and certified instructor. The crew will also consist of tactical flight officers, deputies trained to observe from the air and serve as additional support to the pilots.
“Time will determine whether or not it would justify training more pilots,” Bane said. “Right now we feel two pilots are sufficient to accomplish this mission.”
The helicopter was built in 1970 and has 6,000 total hours of flight time, according to Lt. Lee Dunbar of the Harford County Task Force, a multi-agency anti-narcotics group which will also use the helicopter to support their activities. The helicopter is equipped with an SX-5 Nightsun searchlight and FLIR U7500 thermal imaging camera, he said. Maintenance on the unit will be performed by Horizon Helicopters of Newark, Del.; along with the helicopter itself, Bane said the agency acquired an “extensive” inventory of replacement parts valued at more than $1 million.
Bane said the helicopter will be used on an as-needed basis but expected it to be put into service approximately 25 times next year for situations such as missing persons, high-risk calls and surveillance, disaster assessment, and anti-drug enforcement, among others. The sheriff cited studies which claimed that a helicopter unit can perform the work of as many as a dozen officers on the ground.
Through November, he said, the Sheriff’s Office has called upon the Baltimore County Police Department’s helicopters 11 times, Maryland Station Police units five times for non-medevac purposes, and has used the Army National Guard’s local air unit five times for marijuana eradication efforts.
“But there have been times, more and more of late, when services have not been available when requested and times when aircraft have been turned back or broken off because they were servicing the needs of their own jurisdiction,” Bane said.
“We can no longer sit back and let everyone else do the work for us,” County Council District C Councilman “Capt’n” Jim McMahan said. “As the liaison for the council to the Sheriff’s Office, I always think about tax dollars. This is one of those things that the future has dictated we had to look at.”
The aviation unit is not certified to perform rescue operations and will not be used for medevac purposes, Bane said, a responsibility that will remain with the Maryland State Police.
Dunbar said the seized funds which will now be applied to the aviation unit would not impact the funding for other efforts of the Task Force.
If the unit were funded through tax dollars, Bane said the cost to each Harford County taxpayer would have ranged somewhere between $1.25 and $1.72 each. The sheriff also suggested that the unit could eventually be decommissioned if it was unneeded or too expensive to maintain.
“If we find, for whatever reason, there is no need for this aircraft after several years of operation, should advances in technology offer less costly means of aerial support, or should it become a project the county could not afford should funding become an issue, the project will be suspended,” he said.
To view the full video of the press conference provided by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, click here.