Police departments take to air

Donated helicopters aid law enforcement, but costs are looming

May 21, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Long after they were flown by Army pilots to track enemy advances in the jungles of Vietnam, after they were traded to National Guard units and then declared obsolete for military use, the OH-58 helicopters were quietly transferred to small airfields across America.

Four of them landed at Lee Airport in Edgewater.

They were gifts to the Anne Arundel County Police Department from the U.S. Department of Defense, which in the mid-1990s was reassigning the retired aircraft to law enforcement agencies as part of the domestic drug war.

At first, the issue was how police would use the old military helicopters. But the question being asked today by some local law enforcement officials is: How could they live without them?

Hundreds of county police and sheriff's departments amassed small air forces through the federal program.

Baltimore County police have seven helicopters -- four in service, three in reserve. Anne Arundel police, who recently agreed to allow Howard County police to use their fleet, have two helicopters in service. Two others are still painted Army-issue green -- one of which may soon be rotated into use.

The OH-58s are part of daily police operations, used to chase carjacking suspects, search for missing children and investigate sites of drug production.

But as the aging aircraft finish their last tour of duty in suburbia, police pilots have begun to study replacement options for the helicopters, which retail for about $1 million new.

Anne Arundel police spokesman Charles Ravenell said new helicopters are not in the budget because they aren't needed immediately. Although police in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties have begun lobbying for funds, the future of the aviation units is uncertain.

"We'll probably be able to use ours for another four years or so," said Baltimore County police officer and pilot Roger Young. "But after that, it becomes a safety issue."

Structural integrity can be compromised as the helicopters approach 40 years old, pilots and mechanics say.

"I don't know what will happen," said Anne Arundel police Cpl. Larry Walker, who commands the police aviation unit. "But with all the traffic and congestion in this area, and with so many major events in our area, the helicopter is fast becoming the law enforcement tool of the future."

The helicopters are equipped with spotlights and infrared cameras, making it possible to see suspects or lost children at night.

Even during the day, without the thermal detection equipment, a police officer in the air can see 30 times as far as a patrol officer on the ground, Walker said.

When an Alzheimer's patient was reported missing from a Crofton nursing home a few weeks ago, police could have spent hours searching golf courses, parks and side roads in the area. From the helicopter, it took 30 minutes, Walker said, which allowed officers on the ground to search buildings, where they found the elderly man.

The risks during vehicle pursuits were one reason Howard County police sought to enter a cooperative agreement with Anne Arundel County police to use their helicopter fleet, said Howard County police Lt. Lee Lachman.

Howard County police don't have their own helicopter pilot, though one is in training, Lachman said. The April agreement with Anne Arundel police allows Howard officers to use Arundel's helicopters and pilots, with Howard County paying the $119 hourly maintenance rate and other costs associated with the missions.

"At this point, it made sense for us to share resources instead of trying to reinvent the wheel," Lachman said.

Unlike most police aviation units, Anne Arundel police have two volunteer pilots who are members of the police auxiliary to help with the unit's 350 missions per year, which total about 1,000 flight hours.

One of them, Tom Parlett Sr., helped Walker, a 31-year veteran of the Police Department and a pilot for 27 years, start the aviation unit in 1987 before the county had received the military helicopters.

The Parlett family, which owns Annapolis Flying Service, a charter airline company that for many years operated Lee Airport, donated 100 flight hours to the police to start the program. Later, police leased a helicopter from the business.

Parlett continued to volunteer as a pilot after the county received the military fleet, along with retired Army Col. Burt Rice, a helicopter pilot for 28 years who served two tours of duty during the Vietnam War.

When former County Executive John G. Gary was first considering accepting the helicopters, Rice was president of the County Council. "I was probably an obstacle at first trying to figure out how they'd maintain the aircraft with the county's financial restraints," Rice said. "I became more supportive when I saw what they could do with them."

For Rice, there is no longer a question of whether the county should continue to invest in the aviation unit. "You have to ask yourself, `What's a life worth?' " he said.

Anne Arundel police are looking at having to buy new helicopters within the next few years. They aren't expecting to receive any more gifts from the Department of Defense.

The next helicopters that will be retired from the military were designed for combat, not suburban police work.

Some were made to transport troops, Walker said, and others are equipped with missiles and grenades.

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