May 4, 2006

San Diego police expect to receive this week the first of its four new helicopters, which can fly faster, better track fleeing suspects day and night and engage in new missions.

More suited to police work than the department's fleet of four copters, the new models can accommodate passengers and more equipment and can be used to ferry in supplies in an emergency, drop SWAT officers or evacuate people on a hoist line. The aircraft, made by American Eurocopter, cost the city about $3 million each.

The model AS350, nicknamed A-Star, will have improved surveillance cameras so officers can fly at higher altitudes and still see below, possibly making it quieter for neighbors near a crime scene.
“There is going to be a huge increase in capability,” said Sgt. Mark Hanten, who, with Sgt. Bill Woods, supervises the department's Air Support Unit.

The department routinely uses helicopters to gain a sweeping view of pursuits of cars and suspects on foot, as well as searches for missing people. The crews videotape events and use infrared cameras at night to detect people from their body heat. Often, Woods said, officers aboard a copter are the first to arrive at a crime scene. They monitor the area and help direct officers on the ground.

But the existing fleet, which includes airships 38 and 32 years old, are cramped, holding only two officers. They don't perform lifts or rescue missions.

Woods is enthusiastic about the new helicopters. “They're going to be wonderful. We're getting the best of everything,” he said.

Hanten and two of the departments nine pilots left Sunday for American Eurocopter's assembly plant in Texas for additional training. They were waiting yesterday for clear weather to fly the first one back. It will be a standard issue of the light helicopter that some buyers use for business and others convert for police or ambulance use. Another copter will arrive every couple of months after it is assembled.

Each helicopter will be taken first to McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, where the aviation company Jet Source, at a lower cost than at the factory, will convert them into a police-patrol craft, Hanten said.

Jet Source will add at least a half-dozen police radios for communication across various frequencies, infrared cameras, video cameras, search lights and loud speakers, a hoist line and a laser that can be cast on the ground so the copter crews wearing night-vision goggles can more easily monitor a location.

The American
Eurocopter AS350
Weight (empty): 2,588 pounds

Standard fuel tank: 143 gallons

Overall length with blade in front: 42.45 feet

Seating: one pilot, five to six passengers

The police plan to put the first one into service in August at the air unit's staging area at Montgomery Field. Part of the patrols, Hanten said, will involve learning how the copters' capabilities can be used to develop new policing tactics.

The 350 series has a single engine and single overhead rotor, andcan seat five to six passengers. The copters will cruise at about 145 mph, compared with 110 mph of today's fleet. The 350 series also can carry a bucket to hold water to drop on fires, but Hanten said that is not a primary mission of the craft.

San Diego's craft will be the B3 version of the series, the same model used by the Los Angeles Police Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Ohio State Police.

Sgt. Mark Cannon, of the CHP's border air operation's unit, praised the copter for its power. The CHP can evacuate injured people or conduct searches in the thinner air of the region's mountains, he said.

“It's received a thumbs up from everybody who has them,” Cannon said.

The San Diego City Council approved the $12 million expenditure for the fleet last year and will finance the helicopters over seven years, Hanten said. Also to help with the expense, the existing fleet will be sold, for about $1.7 million.

Two copters in use now were never intended as police craft, Woods said. The oldest, a Bell model built in 1967, was confiscated in a drug bust and given to police for its helicopter program that began in the mid-1980s. Another copter, also from a drug bust, is 32 years old, and the remaining two are 1993 models bought by the department.

Parts are routinely replaced to keep the copters airworthy. Even so, they still run the risk of developing metal fatigue, or cracks, from the decades of service.

The Sheriff's Department operates eight helicopters in its air program called ASTREA.

The San Diego Fire and Rescue Department has one helicopter, Copter 1, that it uses for fighting fires, medical transport and hoisting people to safety.