A helicopter giveaway program by the U.S. Department of Defense has caught the eye of County Executive John G. Gary, who wants a half-dozen of the aircraft for law and zoning enforcement.
Last year, as the Department of Defense tightened its belt, more than 1,100 Bell Jet Rangers were declared surplus and removed from the Army's inventory.
Project Northstar was created to help fight the drug war, and 152 of the helicopters were given to law enforcement agencies around the nation.
Mr. Gary wants six helicopters -- four operational and two for spare parts -- to turn the Police Department's one-man aviation program into a full-fledged aviation unit.
The aircraft are worth about $1.4 million.
So far in Maryland, the state police and the Baltimore County Police Department are the only agencies participating.
Baltimore County police say the helicopters are sorely needed by the aviation unit, which has six pilots and three aircraft: a 1993 single-engine plane, a 1992 two-seat helicopter and a 1967 Army four-seat helicopter.
Getting a batch of free Bell Jet Rangers would let Anne Arundel County keep a helicopter in the air for four hours a day to monitor traffic congestion, help in police chases and detect zoning violations, Mr. Gary said.
"It's another law enforcement tool," he said.
The Washington corridor, with its airports, highway network and coastline, is part of a high-profile drug trafficking area.
"When you have problems along the shoreline, we can't get in there," Mr. Gary said. "We know there is drug trafficking, we can't always get to it."
It would cost the county $40,000 to outfit one helicopter with a searchlight, communications, navigation and other equipment, said Mr. Gary.
An infrared detection system, which can be moved from one helicopter to the next, would cost about $80,000.
The Jet Ranger helicopter can seat five people.
"It is renowned in the industry as being the safest helicopter that has ever been designed," said police Cpl. Larry Walker, a fixed-wing pilot in charge of the county's one-man aviation program.
A full-time aviation program could cost $150,000 to $200,000 a year, he said.
The county Police Department's budget this year is about $48.2 million.
The county leases one helicopter and pilot services, paying $175 an hour for about 300 hours a year, as needed, Mr. Gary said.
The rented helicopter has helped in a half-dozen zoning cases, numerous brush fires, police chases, hunts and searches -- and even in finding police officers lost in the woods.
"It's for aerial support, for aerial photography, to assist officers, to light up areas," said Tom Parlett of Annapolis Flying Service Inc.
His company, based at Lee Airport in Edgewater, has flown more than 800 times in the past four years for the county, he said.
The six- to eight-month lag between making a request and getting the helicopters gives the county time to decide how to operate and pay for an expanded aviation program, Mr. Gary said.
County officials have to decide if the helicopters would be cost-effective and whether to hire civilian pilots and maintenance crews.
Mr. Gary said the county would try the trial program for at least a year.
The executive said he is leaning toward having Corporal Walker certified in helicopter piloting and having a second trained pilot on the county payroll.
Under this plan, Annapolis Flying Service would be used as a backup.
The executive said the helicopters probably could be kept at Tipton airfield, once Fort Meade turns that airport over to Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
That will be at least a year from now.