Posted 8 years 237 days ago ago by Admin
Upon arrival at the Hillsborough County (Florida) Sheriff's Office Aviation Unit, you immediately notice the K-9 vehicles and the sound of barking dogs, signaling that it is probably a good idea to obey the "KEEP BACK" signs on the side of the vehicles. You see, the aviation section is also home to Hillsborough County’s 22 K-9s and their 19 deputies/handlers. It is a combination that displays the creative, cost-effective planning evident in many aspects of the office’s operations.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Aviation Unit commenced operations in the early 1970s, first utilizing a Hughes 269 aircraft, later moving to an OH-58, and finally transitioning to a Bell 206 in the early ‘80s, which was also the first medivac helicopter operating in the county. In 2002, they began switching to an all Airbus Helicopters (formerly American Eurocopter) fleet with the purchase of their first AS350 B2, which was then complemented with the addition of two B2 models in 2005 and 2007. The unit’s rotary fleet was completed with the purchase of an EC120 airframe in 2008. Fixed-wing operations are also conducted using a Cessna 206H, which replaced a 1999 Cessna 182 in 2010.
The aviation section (rotorcraft and fixed-wing) flies an average of 2,300 hours per year in answering approximately 2,500 calls for service. The unit at full staffing consists of one sergeant, one corporal, nine pilots, and two civilian mechanics. Of the unit's sworn pilots, there are four pilots rated as CFIIs in rotorcraft, and two fixed-wing CFII-rated pilots. The unit's operation is bolstered by the assistance of 10 reserve tactical flight officers who augment the units total staffing and provide additional coverage when deputies need time off. The unit's commander, Sergeant Jeff Brunelle, states that the reserve deputies, who provide tactical flight officer coverage, are highly valued within the unit. It would be challenging to maintain a 24/7 operation without their ongoing assistance.
The helicopters are all fitted with cargo hooks, enabling all of the unit’s rotorcraft to assist fire agencies during the dry summer months by utilizing their Bambi Bucket. In addition, the unit's 2007 AS350 B2 was fitted with the first Goodrich rescue hoist system ever used on a law enforcement AS350 and has a 500lb load capacity. All of the unit’s helicopters have air conditioning, a BMS downlink system, Lojack tracking equipment, Avalex moving map systems, and are NVG compatible. All also utilize the FLIR 8500FW system.
The unit's coverage area is approximately 1,050 square miles (containing 216 square miles of water) with an approximate population of 1.3 million residents. Their coverage area incorporates the City of Tampa, Tampa Bay, Port of Tampa, the Sunshine Skyway, and MacDill Air Force Base. Since 9/11, the aviation section has taken on additional duties by providing daily security patrols of the Air Force base as well as responding to calls from the surrounding municipalities and counties.
Sheriff supports aviation
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee is committed to airborne law enforcement. When asked how he sees the benefits of having an aviation unit presence in the county, he says that aviation provides an important round-the-clock resource for law enforcement and first responders that is crucial for public safety. The aircraft allow a rapid response to almost any situation in one of Florida's largest and most populous counties, while at the same time reducing the number of personnel necessary because of the expansive platform afforded from the helicopter.
The sheriff is also a certified rotorcraft pilot and the Southeastern Region Director for the Airborne Law Enforcement Association. Sheriff Gee also provides coverage to the unit as a line pilot when needed, covering shifts to allow others time off.
Ensuring that the unit stays both at the forefront of technology and within budget is no small feat. This has been achieved by the skillful planning of Jeff Brunelle (unit commander) Kevin Langiotti (assistant commander) and Brian Parsons (director of maintenance). The three have worked together over many years to ensure strict adherence to annual budget expectations while creating adequate forecast projections of the unit’s future needs. This planning enabled them to secure funding for an additional AS350 B2, scheduled for October 2014 delivery.
The safe operation of the unit rests largely with the pilots. We saw many safety-related assessments being made when severe weather arrived during our visit. For example, due to weather-related concerns, shift pilots Stu O'Shannon, Kevin Johnson, and Jay Bridwell declined over a dozen requests for service during an eight-hour period. Once the weather partially cleared, they accepted a request for service. However, once airborne, the pilots quickly realized that the AWOS reports were wrong and decided within a mile of leaving the airport to head back to base. With ceilings dropping rapidly below what was reported, the possibility of an IIMC situation occurring was just too significant.
It all comes together
The Hillsborough County Aviation Unit has served the county through thousands of successful operations over the years. Its administrative team ensures that the unit remains cost effective while providing a diverse range of services. Forward thinking allows the unit to keep on the cutting edge of technology and superior training is provided to aircrews for continued safety.
Having the right equipment is important, but Sheriff Gee knows that is only part of a successful operation. Even more crucial is the unit’s reputation for safety and professionalism that, he believes, attracts the very best candidates within his office to become pilots. With solid training, personnel, equipment, and planning, his hope is that the aviation unit will remain strong for years to come—long after his tenure is complete.