Police departments take to air

Donated helicopters aid law enforcement, but costs may rise

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?

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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."

While most planes can fly about 300 days of the year safely, the OH-58, also called Bell 0H-58 Kiowas, can be flown safely 335 days, Walker said.

They can also land in smaller spaces. Walker has landed on the Marley Station Mall parking lot and on a tennis court.

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

Last spring, Anne Arundel police officer and pilot Mark Y. Conklin was flying surveillance for Western District police, who were making a drug arrest outside Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They lost sight of the suspect, who had crashed his car into the Marley Creek Bridge and jumped either into the water or the woods nearby. Even using the infrared cameras, Conklin couldn't see the man. " `All I see is a duck,' " Conklin recalled saying.

A few seconds later, he said, "I realized the `duck' was [the suspect's] head."

Conklin radioed to police below, who quickly captured the suspect.

Walker schedules regular night patrols, because that's when the majority of activity occurs. But the unit is on call 24 hours every day to respond to emergencies, he said.

With a crusing speed of 115 mph, the helicopters can be anywhere in the county within nine minutes.

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.

In Howard County, police credit the helicopter patrol for ending a police chase May 5 that left one officer shot and a string of vehicles battered as police pursued a driver through Ellicott City into Catonsville.

Walker said as soon as he flew in and got close enough to make eye contact, the suspect "looked up and just laid down on the ground to surrender."

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.

"It limits the danger to officers, who can slow down and rely on the pilots [to keep pace] and, as a result, it makes things safer for the public," Lachman said.

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