Military, Public Service

Making the Most

By Ernie Stephens | July 1, 2005

Observation/Patrol, Police, Search and Rescue

Washoe County, Nev.’s Raven unit makes full use of its personnel and aircraft in keeping the streets, desert and mountains safe.

Around 1845, Edgar Allen Poe wrote about a "stately raven" showing up at his door. Today, the stateliest of ravens can be found circling high above Reno, Nev. They belong to Sheriff Dennis Balaam of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and are the helicopters and airplanes of his Regional AViation ENforcement unit, or RAVEN.

Launching from their nest at Reno/Stead Airport (4SD) 10 mi. northwest of Reno, the Raven unit consists of two Army surplus Bell OH-58A+s used for patrol, a surplus Bell HH-1H for search-and-rescue duties, and one Cessna C210T used primarily for transporting personnel and extraditing prisoners.

Of the 700 deputies serving with the sheriff’s office, 34 are assigned to Raven in various capacities, from pilots to administrative personnel.

Raven’s mission is a mixture of SAR, prisoner transport and old-fashioned police work, which accounts for about 800 hr. of flight time. With a 6,700-sq.-mi. patrol responsibility and mountain elevations that soar to 11,000 ft., crews and equipment are frequently pushed to their limits physically, mechanically and even geographically.

"We can fly to one end of our area," said Gregg Lubbe, the unit’s boss, "but we can’t make it back without refueling at one of our trailers."

That is not surprising, considering their beat extends to Nevada’s borders with California and Oregon, an area the size of Delaware

The unit began in 1997 with Lubbe, a helicopter pilot in the Nevada National Guard, as the primary architect.

"I went to agencies who had started units and failed, to get an idea of what not to do."

Next, he went to the sheriff, who at the time was Richard Kirkland, with a plan to start the unit using four military surplus OH-58s–two to fly and two to cannibalize for parts. All four ships fell under the Federal Excess Property Program, a government initiative to provide old Army aircraft to law enforcement agencies as starter fleets. Funding for the first five years came from asset forfeitures in criminal cases, as well as generous donations from businesses and individual citizens in the area. Inmate labor from the jail was used to paint the aircraft, and $20,000 was allocated to bring the ships up to civil standards, including a basic avionics upgrade and a set of high skids. The agency also took advantage of federal grant money to purchase law enforcement-oriented police mission equipment.

In order to start the unit with well-trained, highly experienced pilots, he had the agency look to some of his fellow Guardsmen. "I didn’t want to risk having any accidents," Lubbe admitted. "We’re all medevac pilots in the National Guard," he said of Raven unit pilots. Most are also full-time deputies. To fill out the pilot roster, the agency has six more Guardsmen who are deputized, but serve as contract pilots instead of Washoe county employees.

Military experience is not required to be a Raven pilot, but the minimum requirements for pilot-in-command match a good portion of the experience gained through serving in the Guard program.

"We want at least 1,500 hr. in turbines, an instrument rating and 1,000 hr. of actual flying at altitudes over 5,000 ft.," said Lubbe, quickly adding, "and [the high altitude work] can’t be en route flight." The 1,000 hr. of high-altitude flying has to have been logged while performing takeoffs and landings, search and rescue, or other specific tasks at higher elevations.

A big selling point for getting the unit started, and keeping it running in a cost-effective manner, is Raven’s efficient use of personnel. Currently, all Raven pilots have at least two FAA ratings, something which Lubbe readily admits being partial to in selecting pilots. For helicopter drivers, they must all have at least a commercial rotorcraft license, plus an airframe and powerplant certificate, or a fixed-wing license for the Cessna 210T. Some of the unit’s personnel have all three: a fixed and rotary-wing license and an A&P. With their multi-role approach to staffing, the unit saves on support costs by having their A&P-rated pilots perform the maintenance on their fleet. They can also get double duty out of their dual-rated airmen when the agency’s airplane is the machine of choice over a helicopter. The fact that most of their pilots received their respective dual ratings as part of their Guard training, as opposed to the county paying for it, is an extra benefit.

To become a non-piloting member of a Raven aircrew, a candidate must be a sworn deputy sheriff with Washoe County or a police officer with the Reno Police Dept. (a partner agency in the program). The tactical flight officer (as they are referred to) contols the mission equipment aboard the unit’s helicopters. Currently, Raven ships are equipped with the Spectra Lab SX-16 Night Sun search light, FLIR thermal imager, a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) terminal, and a Garmin GPSMap 295 global positioning system.

Raven crews perform a variety of missions for the area’s population of about 380,000 residents. They respond to many of the 50,000 calls for police service throughout the county, as well as within the city limits of Reno, Nevada’s third largest city.

Outside of the cities’ limits, Raven aircraft fly search-and-rescue missions in the desert and mountains around the county, which Lubbe said can sometimes get hairy. On one SAR mission, an aircrew was scouring a mountainous area looking for boy lost in the snow, a common event at the higher elevations. As the ceilings began dropping to dangerous levels, the crew decided to press their skill and stamina by making one last pass. It was then that they found the boy near death from exposure. The crew managed to haul him into the aircraft and fly him to safety. Medical personnel directly credited the efforts of the aircrew for saving the child’s life.

Funding for the Raven program comes from several sources. The city of Reno contributes $50,000. (In exchange, Raven provides the city with routine patrols and air support for ground operations as needed.) Another source continues to be money raised from seized assets, fund-raisers and public donations. But beginning in fiscal 2000, their third year of operation, Raven also began receiving money directly from the county’s budget.

Lubbe said he expects to see expansions in its homeland security role. Reno is a big tourist destination, which could make it a tempting target for terrorism. Washoe County deputies provide air support to a variety of federal law enforcement and security operations, as well as protection assignments for high-level government officials, including the president of the United States. Unit officials hope their traditional sources of funding will keep pace with any increases in homeland security functions, plus provide an avenue for increased services and capabilities. As Raven’s fleet of surplus aircraft near the end of their usefulness, funding for better rotorcraft and fixed-wing assets becomes more critical.

"We want to get some new Bell 407s and a Cessna Caravan," said Lubbe. "Our sheriff is a big supporter of that."

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