Police ready to fly copters

City craft to be larger, more costly

staff, flying time to be cut

`The greatest gift of all'

Memorial honors officer who died a year ago in crash

November 05, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A year after a Baltimore police helicopter crashed at the B&O Railroad Museum and killed its pilot, the department is ready to resume flying over the city -- but with a larger, more expensive craft.

Acting police Commissioner Bert Shirey said yesterday that commanders have decided to use a five-seat Bell helicopter, larger than the two-seat Schweizer the department used before, and will try to put bids out for a lease agreement within three months.

Under the plan, a private company will buy two or three Bell 206B3 helicopters -- which cost about $600,000 each -- and lease them to the city. But the price for a Bell is more than double that of a Schweizer, and Shirey said flying time and personnel will be cut by about one-third to make up the difference.

The announcement came the same day a memorial service was held at the museum for Officer Barry W. Wood, who died in the crash at 2: 28 p.m. Nov. 4, 1998.

His wife, Martha Wood, family friends and city officials gathered in the historic roundhouse, which the errant helicopter nearly clipped in its descent. Wood's death prompted the grounding of the helicopter unit called Foxtrot.

"The time spent at this memorial is short," said Bishop L. Robinson, who served as police commissioner from 1984 to 1987 and was a friend of Wood's. "But so is life. Don't forget why we came. We came to honor a man who gave us the greatest gift of all -- his life."

Wood was helping police cruisers chase a stolen car when a mechanical failure put the helicopter into a tailspin over Pratt Street and it crashed in the museum's parking lot.

"He turned that aircraft around to his side to save my life," said Officer Mark Keller, who was sitting next to him when the craft went down.

The decision to continue the helicopter program will have to be made by city Board of Estimates and possibly by a new police commissioner, to be chosen by Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley, who takes over Dec. 7.

Shirey said plans are for the department to continue a lease arrangement, as it had before the crash.

The department flew its Schweizer fleet 3,200 hours a year at a cost of $241 an hour. Total cost of the program, including $728,000 for personnel, was $1.4 million annually.

The proposal would cut that flying time to 2,000 hours a year, at a cost of $535 an hour, and cut the number of personnel from 13 to nine. That would keep the yearly cost to $1.5 million.

Shirey said he would like to see the helicopter unit back in the air because it allows officers to safely chase fleeing cars without having cruisers speeding on city streets, and helps to illuminate crime scenes and search areas.

In 1996, the city sold its helicopters and maintenance contract to Helicopter Transport Services, based at Martin State Airport in Middle River. Union officials criticized the sale then, which the city said was done to save money.

Federal investigators attributed a police helicopter crash in 1997 -- which did not result in injuries -- to "incomplete and improper maintenance and inspection practices." The National Transportation Safety Board said parts that should have been discarded had been installed during an engine overhaul. The NTSB has not finished its investigation into Wood's crash but has said preliminary findings showed a piston rod had punctured two holes in the engine casing, possibly causing it to stop working.

Shirey said using the Bell helicopters should be safer because they are turbine-driven, rather than piston-driven, meaning they have fewer movable parts. But Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police union, said he doesn't want to see a for-profit company repair the aircraft. "We need to have complete control over the operation," he said.

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