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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2001

Cities balance copters' cost, effectiveness

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CHANDLER, ARIZ. - Lt. Mace Ebert is trying to convince the city council here to lease a helicopter for its police department.

Despite the fact that there is a helicopter pilot training facility in his backyard, the department's requests have been rejected several times in previous years. The city council decided against the idea again last month because of the estimated $380,000 cost for the pilot, chopper, maintenance, and fuel, the lieutenant said.

“Cities only have so much money,” he acknowledged. “This fiscal year we needed to build a new fire facility. There was not a lot of money left over for this particular project.”

Nearby cities Mesa and Phoenix have police choppers, as do many other communities throughout the country, including some in Ohio - Cleveland, Columbus, and Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati.

Dayton bought a chopper about 12 years ago. It was flown until three to four years ago, when it was sold because it wasn't cost-effective, Detective Carol Johnson said.

“We periodically used it for apprehensions, when conditions were not conducive to utilizing a cruiser. It was especially good for grand theft auto [cases],” she said. “In my opinion, it was helpful. A number of times when I was on the street patrolling and we had a pursuit, it kept constant visuals on the suspect. You can't outrun a helicopter.”

Columbus police helicopter pilots agreed, adding that their seven turbine choppers provide surveillance and support to ground crews by giving them direction on a situation.

“We can see so much more - the bigger picture, if you would - and response time is generally going to be a lot shorter,” said Officer Rob King, a pilot with the Columbus unit.

Columbus started its helicopter unit in the 1970s with a piston chopper, similar to the type of helicopter Toledo police plan to buy this year. It moved to turbine helicopters when it bought two choppers through military surplus. All of the department's current choppers are turbines, which can cost more than $1 million to buy and may be louder than the piston helicopters.

“The bad thing in the beginning is the complaints of noise. People were not used to having a helicopter around. Now, we get a call or two, but it's usually during a special mission,” said Steve Raether, pilot and chief flight instructor of the Mesa police department's aviation unit.

Around Cincinnati, the Hamilton County sheriff's office uses two choppers for patrol, traffic control, fugitive and missing person searches, drug surveillance, and chases. The department primarily serves the county, but it contracts with Cincinnati, other suburban departments, and agencies in Indiana and Kentucky, for about $175 an hour.

The choppers, which cost more than $600,000 each, were bought and are maintained with drug forfeiture money. The unit's two pilots fly Monday through Saturday for two to four hours during the shift they work and are on call for emergencies, said Steve Barnett, sheriff's department spokesman.

“The sheriff took a lot of heat and criticism in the beginning. The concern was over cost,” Mr. Barnett said. “But it's been proven and determined it's an effective law enforcement tool. It's too late to go get one when you need it.”

While many departments have logged thousands of flight hours with no accidents, some have not been as lucky.

In February, 2000, a police lieutenant and a helicopter mechanic were killed when their chopper crashed while on a maintenance flight near Salt Lake City. Three years earlier, a sheriff's deputy was killed and another, the pilot, was injured seriously when their helicopter lost power and crashed near San Diego while on routine patrol.

Beyond accidents, some departments have had mechanical or management problems.

Joseph Harris, Detroit's auditor general, found the city's four helicopters had been grounded for significant periods of time for the 141/2 months ending last September.

He determined the choppers mainly were grounded because of poor management and planning of the unit's mechanical maintenance.

He said the unit also did not comply with selected purchase order terms and certain requirements of the city's purchasing ordinance.

Spending money on replacement parts and required overhaul are the main reasons why Lieutenant Ebert wants Chandler police to lease, not buy, a helicopter.

For special missions, the department pays for a pilot and a helicopter at Quantum Helicopters at the municipal airport here, where Toledo officers are undergoing their pilot training. But Lieutenant Ebert wants to see Chandler officers flying more than just a handful of times a year.

“I think every department sees the need for a helicopter,” he said. “A better view means saving lives.”



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