Phoenix's Air Support Unit chases criminals, quenches fires and rescues the distressed from nearby mountains with its fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
Since 1973, the Phoenix Police Dept.'s Air Support Unit has been backing up earthbound patrol officers, dousing fires across the department's 500 sq. mi. jurisdiction and rescuing injured climbers off the city's hot, arid mountains.
"We're the busiest mountain rescue service in the United States," said Air Support Unit Chief Pilot Phil Tilford. "This may sound bizarre considering we're talking about the city of Phoenix, Ariz., but the reason is that we have several thousand acres of mountainous parkland within the city limits, and within those are hundreds of miles of hiking trails. There's lots of loose rock and gravel, so you end up with a lot of hikers falling and getting head injuries, broken legs and the occasional heart attack."
Since the day it was founded, the Air Support Unit's primary mission has been patrol support. "We provide direct assistance to the officers on the ground," said Tilford. "Sometimes this means helping them track stolen cars; other times we respond to robbery scenes, to get the big picture of what's happening."
The Air Support Unit can often send an airborne helicopter to a crime scene faster than the nearest patrol car. The intelligence provided by this early response allows responding patrol officers to react more effectively and enhances their safety and that of the public.
One area where the Air Support Unit excels is in police chases. "We take over in pursuits if the ground officer can't get the fleeing car to stop," said Lt. Allen Smith, Air Support Unit commander. "In these instances, the ground car backs off the suspect and we take over by following from the air. Most of the bad guys don't realize that they're being watched from the sky. Typically the bad guy will slow down and eventually stop, at which point we call for patrol officers to move in and make the arrest."
Fire suppression is a second ongoing duty, despite the fact that its fleet belongs to the Phoenix Police. "We use Bambi buckets to haul water to wildfires," said Tilford. "The grass grows tall and dry here in summer, especially in the mountains."
Mountain rescue is the Air Support Unit's third duty. Airlifting a casualty off a mountain is hard work, but particularly difficult during the summer when hot air reduces the helicopter's lift.
"These rescues are very tricky," Tilford said. "As soon as you hover and attach a line to a live person, you are at the greatest risk possible until you get them inside the cabin. Sometimes such long line rescues can take several minutes. That's a long time to expose your aircraft to maximum hazards."
All told, the Air Support Unit's mission today is the same as it was in 1973. "The only difference is the amount of work done," said Smith. "We have flown up to 8,000 hr. a year to fulfill our duties."
The initial Air Support Unit's fleet was relatively small---just two two-seat, piston engine Hughes 300C helicopters and one Cessna 172 airplane.
By 2005, the fleet had grown to seven 1991-vintage MD Helicopters MD520N NOTAR turbine helicopters, two 2001 vintage NOTARS and a Eurocopter AStar AS350B3 that was acquired in late 2004. Last month they acquired two additional AS350B3s and an Agusta A109 to be shared with the Phoenix Fire Dept. On the fixed wing side, the Air Support Unit has two Cessna 172s and a Cessna 182.
The unit's helicopters are equipped with a range of two-way radios covering the 150 MHz, 450 MHz and 800 MHz bands in recognition of the fact that the area's public safety agencies use incompatible radio systems.
The Department's avionics suite includes Garmin 430s and 530s; the latter offering a `moving map' display. Each PPD helicopter has a FLIR Ultra 8000 Dual Imaging camera system, capable of shooting outdoor regular and infrared video to assist with nighttime searches.
For lighting, the Air Support Unit equips its helicopters with Spectra Lab SX16 50 million candlepower searchlights.
Service for the Air Support Unit's fleet is provided by the department's own team of eight mechanics and an avionics specialist located at the unit's Phoenix Deer Valley Airport facility. "We have a 14,000 sq. ft. main hangar and four smaller hangars for servicing and storing our aircraft," said Smith. "The majority of our mechanics are ex-military. All are well-trained and dedicated. They do a tremendous job of keeping us flying."
The unit has 23 officer pilots/observers, a chief pilot, two sergeants and a lieutenant who serves as on-site unit commander. It takes great care in choosing and training its pilots. "We start with officers who must have a minimum of three years' experience on the department. We begin by training them to be observers," Smith said. "Observers don't just go along for the ride. They have to handle six or more radios, operate the flir and searchlight, and keep the pilot advised on what calls are a priority."
Historically there have been about three openings every two years. "This makes the unit one of the most elite units in the department with only a very few select officers attaining a position."
Even with extensive preselection, about 40 percent of all new observers wash out and return to normal duties within a year. Those who survive have a shot at becoming helicopter pilots because the unit hires its pilots from within. "We can train cops to be pilots, but we have found that it is more difficult to train pilots to be cops," Smith observed. "It takes a certain kind of person to do this job well."
The unit does pilot training in-house using staff pilots who are also CFIs (Certified Flight Instructors). When an officer has gained sufficient experience as an observer, he is offered the chance to become a pilot, with rotary wing training as time and opportunity permits.
"We train our pilots to a high degree of proficiency," said Tilford. "We don't train them for 100-200 hours. We go far beyond that, giving our students training and skills that most people consider to be excessive. We don't let them become PICs until they acquire between 400-500 hr. of flight experience in our helicopters."
For a pilot, Phoenix is a tough place to work. As the city grows, the airspace is becoming increasingly crowded. Meanwhile, the hot Arizona summer makes flying difficult both for aircraft and pilots, especially those flying the half of the fleet that doesn't have air conditioning.
"The heat can be exhausting," said Tilford. "After an hour and a half in a non-air-conditioned aircraft, a pilot can be pretty packed in."
Meanwhile, the unit's MD520Ns are getting long in the tooth. "The original helicopters each have flown over 12,000 hours," Tilford said. "One has made it past 13,600 hours. None will make it past 15,000 hours, because that's what we believe to be the limit of the airframe based upon our demanding style of flying".
"In response to the problems of keeping the MD fleet flying due to spares availability and increased costs, the city has fully supported the Air Unit and has provided funding to begin changing the fleet," said Smith. "The city has also discussed plans to begin purchasing a helicopter a year instead of relying on capital bond funding, which had previously resulted in the purchase of several helicopters at one time. This will allow us to work with a newer fleet and will prevent the wearing out of several helicopters at the same general time."
Despite an aging fleet, tight budget, increasing air traffic and an ever-increasing workload to contend with, officers of the PPD Air Support Unit can't imagine doing anything else. "I have been flying for the unit for 21 years, and I still enjoy my job," Tilford said.
"The level of support throughout city management has been fantastic, we are entering a time of great change, and I am really looking forward to flying and training our pilots in this new equipment."
James Careless is a freelance journalist who specializes in public safety news.