Sometimes a small airborne law enforcement unit can make a larger impact than its size suggests. The Imperial Valley Airborne Narcotics Enforcement (IVAN) Air Support Unit makes such an impact. IVAN operates within Imperial County, which covers the lower east corner of Southern California and is bordered by Mexico to the south and Arizona to the east. Most of the area is low desert with a few small cities and many thousands of acres of farmland growing many types of produce. The area is warm all year, but during the summer months it is always hot; temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees for consecutive weeks.
IVAN Air Support is a part of The Imperial County Narcotics Task Force (ICNTF),which originated in 1973 to combat local and regional drug trafficking and gangs. Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies take part in the task force by sharing information and intelligence from many sources. The task force is governed by a board of directors chosen from participating agencies that include the Imperial County District Attorney’s Office, the Imperial police department, Imperial County Probation, U.S. Border Patrol, California Highway Patrol, Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and Homeland Security Investigations. ICNTF’s chairman of the board is District Attorney Gilbert Otero, and its commander is Mike Loyd. The IVAN Air Support Unit formed in 2011, with the purchase of a Robinson R44 LE helicopter. Since the program’s establishment, its chief pilot has been Donald Wharton.
IVAN Air Support single Robinson R44 operates in a factory law enforcement (LE) configuration. Equipment includes a FLIR 8500 infrared camera and Technisonic TDFM 9100 Communication Package. A Spectrolab SX-15 NightSun searchlight , a belly-mounted PA system, and cockpit-located LoJack system rounds out the LE layout. From the pilot and tactical flight officer’s point of view the most important accessory on the aircraft is its air conditioning. “We wouldn't be able to operate on hot summer days and even at night, as air conditioning is a critical feature,” says one IVAN pilot.
AIR SUPPORTS GROUND OPS
Most of the operational area is at or below sea level, density altitudes are often above 3,500 feet, yet the R44 has adequate performance to accomplish its missions. Since entering service it has proven a reliable and capable asset, however the unit has its eyes on the better performing R66 if funding becomes available. A two-aircraft fleet would give more mission flexibility and continuous coverage when one aircraft is down for maintenance. IVAN found its R44 to be a great addition to the task force as the aircraft gives commanders an aerial asset over which they have complete operational control. IVAN likes having the ability to conduct a surveillance operation without having to ask an outside agency for air support.
When it conducts a raid-and-arrest, having aerial support and a command-and-control platform above the ground enhances officer safety exponentially. Officers on the ground are more comfortable and commanders feel they have a much better handle on the situation. The helicopter has proven to be an extremely valuable resource during most scenarios, to include raids.
The program has a unique pool of aviation talent. TAC Flite LLC was formed to offer full aviation support of the unit.This includes highly skilled and experienced pilots with an average total flight time of over 8,000 hours. All pilots work on a part-time basis bidding for patrol shifts on a monthly basis. All but one member of the pilot group work with large CFR 135 operators and maintain the industry’s highest proficiency standards. The pilot group are non-sworn civilian operators, with the exception of Chief Pilot Don Wharton, who is a 19-year reserve deputy veteran of the Imperial County Sheriff's Office. The tactical flight officers are all full-time sworn officers who represent many of the local police departments in Imperial County.
Training is provided through the LAPD TFO, CA-POST certified course. Then the TFO training continues in the field with the veteran TFO operators. Annual safety training including subjects such as CRM, flight physiology, and SOP review are part of the program. Other training enhancements includes classroom time with Kevin Means, owner-instructor from Tactical Flying, Inc, a training organization specializing in aerial law enforcement operations. On occasion the program has had other industry experts come down to Imperial County and provide 'hands-on" training and advice to the unit.
A major contributor to the success of the program has been Officer Carl Garlick, Chief Pilot of the El Monte PD and Baldwin Park PD regional air support program, a progressive program with many firsts to include being first in the nation to start aerial patrol work with a Robinson (first in the 90s with R22s and then first police version of the R44). With his expertise and guidance, Carl was instrumental in helping to get the IVAN program off the ground. He helped with the aircraft pre-purchase, initial training, and continues to support program. He is also a long-time Robinson Factory Instructor and helped guide a few of the pilots through the factory Pilot Safety Course.
The IVAN air support facility is based at Imperial County Airport and has a large hangar to support its flight and internal maintenance operations, as well as storage for some of the unit’s specialized operations vehicles. Attached to the hangar are offices, a lounge with attached kitchen, a conference room, showers, and overnight facilities for flight crews who work nights. The airport’s location in the center of the county gives the unit the ability to respond anywhere in the county in a timely manner and then allows the aircraft to come back to refuel and get back to an operation or incident quickly.
IVAN Air Support Unit is a multi-mission unit. Being the only air support other than the California Highway Patrol’s AS-350B3. IVANE stays very busy and never lacks for missions or mission requests. Its foremost request is for surveillance support for NTF operations that includes aerial photography and video (evidence gathering) before and after an operation. Surveillance includes watching suspect drug dealers and their movements to help build a strong case. The unit’s R44 also provides aerial support during warrant sweep operations and watches for suspects attempting to escape through the containment line.
During gang sweep operations, IVAN R44 also provides perimeter patrol and direct aerial support for ground units during the operation. With Imperial County up against the Mexican border, IVAN provides border patrol support during various operations with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. These are both day and night operations. Another mission is emergency response to natural disasters and emergency occurrences (earthquake, flooding, aircraft down, etc. ). Imperial Valley is located on the south end of the San Andreas fault line and experiences many fault movements, so there is an anticipation of future large earthquakes and IVAN plans to provide aerial command and control for law enforcement during these anticipated events.
Finally, IVAN provides routine aerial patrols for participating local cities (Brawley, Imperial, El Centro, Calexico) and supports these cities when they need aerial photography as part of their investigations or other specific duties that the helicopter can perform. That said IVAN is available for any law enforcement operations in the Imperial Valley, such as a vehicle pursuit or when an officer needs help to locate or call a suspect out of hiding. Wharton says, “We make sure that if we are flying to be available for any law enforcement occurrence.”
All maintenance is managed by, Randy Ogata, the director of maintenance. With the exception of heavy maintenance all work on the R44 is performed by Ogata who holds an A&P as well as an inspection authorization. Wharton says, “This helicopter is close to trouble-free so one mechanic is generally sufficient to keep the program running.” For heavy maintenance the unit uses a Robinson service center in the San Diego area. When support or repairs of the mission-specific equipment, such as the FLIR / camera system or communications gear, is required the equipment manufacturer or one of their service centers does the work. For overhaul services, the Robinson factory in Torrance, California, is about an hour flight from the IVAN facility.
The only drawback to IVAN operations is having only one helicopter. IVAN would love to have an additional ship, the Robinson R44 has proven it can be run economically. In the future, the turbine-powered R66 or other light-turbine could give additional power and endurance to provide the citizens of Imperial County with even better service.