With an older fleet and a flush budget, Tampa’s Police Aviation Squad is ready to patrol the Bay area’s streets, beaches and federal installations.
An illegally acquired aircraft was flown intentionally into a building. No, this isn’t 9/11. This was Jan. 5, 2002 in Tampa, Fla., when 15-year-old flight student Charles Bishop stole a Cessna 172 trainer from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, violated the airspace over MacDill AFB, then crashed into the Bank of America building. A suicide note was found in his pocket and the incident turned the nations focus on general aviation aircraft.
Despite the national attention, Flight Supervisor Randy Miller of the Tampa Police Aviation Squad said, it was viewed as an isolated incident and noted that homeland security has not significantly impacted their day-to-day operations. With an impressive fleet, outfitted with the latest in technology, the unit was already prepared to handle any mission.
Sixteen full-time personnel operate three Bell 407s, two Hughes OH-6s and two fixed-wing aircraft (a Cessna 172 and a Piper Navajo), and log more than 3,000 hr. a year in their law enforcement and homeland security roles.
"The missions have not really changed since 9/11," said Miller. "We patrol MacDill Air Force Base (home of U.S. Central Command), the Port of Tampa and the dam since it’s a water source. They are all part of the normal patrol route and haven’t really added a lot of flight time."
Homeland security aside, one of the more imminent missions is natural disaster relief, which a newly acquired Avalex AMS 7000 moving-map system will help them to fulfill.
"We put the Avalex into all five helicopters," said Miller. "What a world of difference that makes. We can split the screens, putting video on one side and the map on the other. It’s made our workload so much easier."
The moving maps will also assist in hurricane relief by showing where flooded roads are (or used to be).
The AMS 7000 can incorporate VFR and IFR charts, along with road maps, topographical charts, aerial photos, and a host of other features. While last year’s hurricanes managed to miss Tampa, the squad provided logistical and personnel support to nearby affected areas.
The squad is commanded by a Flight Supervisor (Miller), whose rank is the equivalent of a sergeant in the department. Funding comes from the city’s general fund to the tune of about $1.5 million dollars a year, which includes fuel and maintenance. Salaries are paid out of the police department’s budget, which is separate from the aviation unit.
"If we weren’t working out here, we’d be doing something anyway," said Miller, who, like all of the pilots and flight officers are sworn police officers.
The squad has been in existence since 1968 and Miller said he doesn’t have trouble getting funding.
"Really there are no issues about spending money on aviation. A long time ago, a mayor or chief threatened to shut down the aviation unit, but there was such uproar from the citizens that it has never been mentioned since."
They have secured some federal grant money and both Vietnam-era OH-6s came from a military surplus program. A recent Urban Area Security Initiative Grant helped the squad acquire the Avalex systems. Funding for the 407s was provided through a Local Law Enforcement Block Grant.
The Piper Navajo was seized during a drug raid and now, in a twist of fate, is used for offshore surveillance and drug intercepts.
All hiring is done from within. Officers must have at least one year of street experience, their fixed-wing private pilot certificate and an instrument rating. Once selected, the squad provides the helicopter training in-house in one of the OH-6s. Civilian contractors are not used. Officers then transition to the 407 to take their FAA check ride.
Staffing consists of six pilots, six tactical flight officers (observers), a maintenance director and two mechanics, and one materials coordinator. All maintenance is also done in-house. Many pilots start out as a tactical flight officer until a pilot position opens up.
The aircraft are outfitted with top-of-the line systems. They currently use Aerial Films Gyrocam systems, which can be operated from the front or rear and have day/night vision capability, and one Triple Sensor day/night infrared camera.
"That’s what we’re really catching people with," said Miller. "We get stolen car suspects that we wouldn’t before."
All systems are capable of real-time downlinking to all of the district stations, a mobile command post and a mobile response vehicle.
The ability to track a criminal pursuit from a standoff distance while still keeping the suspect in sight is often an additional safety benefit from using helicopters and long-range cameras.
The 407s are outfitted by Texas Aviation Services. A standard package features a Garmin GNS-530 GPS/nav/comm, Allied-Signal’s KX165 nav/comm, Sandel Electronics color horizontal situation indicator, Goodrich Skywatch traffic advisory system and a Shadin fuel management system. They are also equipped with NAT VHF handheld radios, a Lo/Jack car recovery system, GMS downlink system, Spectrolab SX-5 spotlights and a cargo hook for both the Bambi Bucket (for aerial fire suppression work) and rappelling attachment points (for special operations).
When Tampa’s population climbs from 325,000 people to nearly a million on the weekends, the squad provides the standard police helicopter services, assisting with evasive suspects, high-speed chases and patrol. The unit also works with the Tampa P.D.’s Tactical Response Team.
The squad has had four accidents in ten years. One accident occurred during training and another was attributed to spatial disorientation over water. Miller claimed the other two were mechanical failures, although the NTSB disagreed.
In one particular accident in April 2002, a pilot and flight officer was patrolling the perimeter of MacDill AFB in an OH-6 when the pilot lost all tail-rotor control. The helicopter dropped 400 ft. into shallow water and rolled onto its side upon impact. The pilot and flight officer both suffered minor injuries. The helicopter, valued at $240,000, was totaled, as was a $300,000 camera mounted beneath it.
At the time, maintenance director Dick Fernandez speculated that there may have been a problem with the helicopter’s drive shaft. The NTSB sent the driveshaft back to its manufacturer, which determined the part was not at fault. Miller then sent the driveshaft to an independent metallurgist, who insisted the driveshaft did indeed fail.
In another controversial incident, a Tampa officer was killed in the line of duty during a shootout. This brought to light the aviation unit’s sometime practice of leaving their flight officers behind.
In July 2001, Tampa officer Lois Marrero was shot and killed while chasing a bank robber. Nester DeJesus, who had just robbed the South Tampa Bank of America, ambushed the officer from behind a parked car. A police helicopter was on scene at the time but with only a pilot on board. A subsequent lawsuit questioned why there wasn’t a flight officer on board who may have had a clearer line of sight on the incident. The lawsuit resulted in then-police Chief Bennie Holder ordering pilots to always fly with flight officers. A lieutenant was also put into a supervisory position over the aviation unit.
The current chief, Steven Hogue, rescinded the flight officer policy.
"If for some reason the pilot is the only person here, we can respond," said Miller.
The squad spends a great deal of time in training. Instructors are brought in from the Bell factory every six months to conduct recurrency training in the 407s, and personnel from Lunsford and Associates are used for recurrency training in the OH-6s. The squad also has its own flight instructors.
In 2005, the squad started a computer-based training program utilizing CTS to provide aircraft systems training. Each month, a new topic is assigned (such as a specific Bell 407 system, Crew Resource Management, aero-medical issues, and so on) and the online training must be completed within the month by each pilot.
Water-survival training is conducted annually by the department’s dive team or the U.S. Coast Guard’s Group St. Petersburg.
The squad adheres to a comprehensive safety program that includes an FAA safety officer counselor. A safety committee reviews operations on a quarterly basis.
The safety program includes hazard notifications and a hazard-reporting system, a safety library, and a mishap-response plan. The mishap plan assigns duties and roles to officers in case of an aircraft accident to quickly determine the cause and apply corrective measures. The local FAA Flight Standards District Office is brought in for continuing safety education and safety program awareness.
Miller has been with the unit 16 years, starting out on the street for one year, then moving to the aviation unit.
Aviation personnel attend roll calls, helping to continue good relationships with the street patrol officers, and street officers frequently go on ride-alongs in the helicopters to get a better idea what life in the air is like.
With the latest in airborne law enforcement technology and time-tested personnel selection and training practices, the Tampa Aviation unit looks to be ready to handle any mission coming their way.