By Ernie Stephens | August 12, 2017
This article was originally published in R&WI's July 2013 issue. We are republishing it in the wake of the Saturday crash of a Virginia State Police Bell Helicopter 407, which was assisting the public safety response in the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests — resulting in the deaths of two troopers. The NTSB said an investigation is ongoing.
Back in 2011, while attending the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) conference in New Orleans, I saw a brand new Virginia State Police (VSP) Eurocopter EC145 on display. It had recently been completed by Metro Aviation of Shreveport, La., and was loaded with all of the latest gear for flying air medical missions. While driving through southern Virginia – technically a “commonwealth” – a couple of years later, I wondered how the crews at VSP were enjoying their new aircraft. So, I asked if I could drop in for a visit someday. They said I could… and I did.
VSP has three bases of operation. One is on the western end of the state at Virginia Highlands Airport (VJI) in Abingdon. Another is at Lynchburg Regional Airport (LYH) in central Virginia. The third is at Chesterfield County Airport (FCI), a few miles southwest of Richmond. The department used to have a hangar at Manassas Regional Airport (HEF) 28 nm west of Washington, DC, but it was closed in 2009 due to massive statewide budget cuts. I visited the Chesterfield hangar, since it also serves as headquarters for the Aviation Unit.
Upon arriving at the VSP hangar, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, the commander of the Aviation Unit, greeted me. Cullen, a 20-year veteran of the department and 14-year member of the unit, is a licensed fixed-wing and rotorcraft pilot with a CFII in both. He led me through the small but comfortable administrative section of the operation’s large hangar to the office of 1st Sgt. Perry Benshoof, the assistant unit commander and holder of the same licenses as Cullen. Benshoof is a 25-year veteran of the VSP, and has been in the Aviation Unit for 11 of those. Each wore a round patch on the pocket of their flight suit that read “Med-Flight,” the official name of the air medical transport portion of the operation.
Benshoof explained that the unit operates a total of six helicopters – two Eurocopter EC145s and four Bell 407s. The twin-engine EC145s are set up for emergency air medical transport, while the smaller, single-engine 407s are used primarily for law enforcement missions. But when an EC145 is taken out of service for maintenance, one of the Bells will have its aft cabin reconfigured for temporary service as a medevac platform.
VSP also operates three single-engine Cessna 182 airplanes to transport investigators and administrative personnel, perform surveillance work, conduct speed enforcement, and patrol the interstates. But that fleet may be upgraded soon. The state is trying to order a brand new pair of single-engine Cessna 206s with high-end video surveillance suites.
Nicknamed the “Old Dominion state,” Virginia is ranked 12th in statewide population, with approximately 8.2 million residents living on 42,774 square miles of land. Of the 1,800 members of the state police, 18 are assigned to the Aviation Unit.
The helicopter fleet does not conduct routine patrols. Instead, it is an on-demand operation, and flies anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 hours per year. An estimated 60 percent of the calls received are for emergency air medical transport, while the remaining 40 percent are police missions or search and rescue (SAR) assignments. Each shift averages 20-30 hours per month.
The EC145s “seem to be getting a lot of time on them now, because we’ve been pretty steady on Med-Flight calls,” said Cullen. “Come summertime, when we start getting a lot more marijuana eradication and some of the other things, the 407s will start building time.”
The unit keeps one EC145 at Virginia Highlands Airport in Abingdon, which Benshoof said handles the most medevac calls, due to its service area’s distance from trauma centers. One Bell 407 – which is more cost-effective to fly than its twin-engine hangar mate – is also kept there for law enforcement calls. The Chesterfield base is staffed and equipped similarly to the one in Abingdon, except that it normally houses two 407s.
The hangar in Lynchburg once handled police and medevac platforms. But in 2010, its medevac responsibilities ended, leaving a 407 there for police missions. Virginia crews their aircraft with a mix of 18 sworn troopers and 16 non-sworn civilian personnel working a combination of shifts. All aircraft are flown by one or two trooper/pilots, but a second trooper is always aboard when a 407 is being used for nighttime police missions. For medevac missions, VSP flies with a mix of personnel.
“Here, we partner with Chesterfield County Fire and Rescue, who provides the medics – we fly a two-medic program,” explained Benshoof. “Out in Abingdon, we’re partnered with Wellmont Health System. They provide flight nurses and/or medics.”
To be a pilot, a trooper must have already graduated from the police academy, spent no less than another year in patrol, and hold at least a private pilot’s certificate and current second class medical. When there is an opening in the unit, the suitability of an applicant is judged by their performance in their previous assignments, their flying experience, and their potential for earning the commercial fixed-wing instrument and commercial rotorcraft instrument ratings required for all permanent members of the unit.
Since the average new member comes into the unit with a private pilot’s license in just one category of aircraft, the agency will pay their way through the appropriate schools to get them their private rating in whichever category aircraft they are lacking, plus an instrument rating in both. Upon successful completion of those aspects of training, and some more in-house work, the pilot will be sent to Bell’s 407 transition school. After that, it’s back to flying with senior in-house pilots until receiving a commercial rating and subsequent approval to serve as a pilot-in-command. Once the new pilot has demonstrated proficiency in the 407, they can be transitioned into the EC145.
Aviation Unit supervisors must pass the standard sergeant’s examination and promotion process administered by the VSP, plus be a certified flight instructor in airplanes and rotorcraft. To reach the ranks of first sergeant and lieutenant, the appropriate agency-wide promotion process must be followed, but the trooper must be a certified flight instructor for instruments.
Since the paramedics assigned to fly aboard the aircraft work for either the hospital system or county fire department, they are hired, assigned, and promoted in accordance with the guidelines of their respective employers.
Just like their paramedic partners, pilots assigned to fly Med-Flight missions work a 24-hour day – sort of. “Because of the Fair Labor Standards Act, they actually have to work.3 hours over,” explained Cullen. “So, [they will work] 8:00 this morning until about 8:20 tomorrow morning.”
Pilots assigned to fly police missions in the Bell 407s generally work 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. But since calls for police service are so few during the early morning hours, no crews are assigned to work overnight. Instead, a flight crew is on-call for any major event requiring a helicopter, or brought in for a scheduled assignment.
To accommodate the staff, each hangar has a generous set of quarters, including a full-size kitchen, lounge area, offices, flight planning room, laundry room, and several small bedrooms equipped with a television, locker, desk and chair. And while the crew quarters were far from matching the accommodations at the Waldorf, they were more comfortable and well-maintained than those I’ve seen (or slept in) at most other hangars.
Out on the left side of the aircraft bay was Chesterfield’s complement of Bell 407s. Sporting the unit’s old red, white and blue livery, N30VA and N34VA were built one behind the other in October 2000. Those ships, plus the others at Abingdon and Lynchburg, were delivered in 2001 as replacements for the department’s aging Bell fleet, which formerly consisted of three 206Bs and one 206L.
Each 407 is equipped with a Technisonic TDFM 7300/NV radio suite that is P25 compliant, a FLIR 8500 forward-looking infrared camera system, Garmin 430 and 696 GPS systems, a 30-million candlepower Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun searchlight, an autopilot, and a Breeze-Eastern hoist. In 2010, the Bell fleet received cockpit upgrades to support the use of ITT ANVIS-9 night vision goggles.
On the day of my visit, the Bells’ stablemate was N29VA, an EC145 manufactured in 2009 and delivered to the VSP, along with its twin sister N39VA, in 2011. The aircraft replaced the unit’s old BK117 and BO105LS for use as medevac platforms. The EC145s, which are dressed in the same gray and blue paint scheme worn by VSP’s patrol cars, are equipped with much of the same gear found aboard the 407s, except they have starboard-mounted Goodrich hoists and full medical service suites. They do not, however, have FLIR units. Todd Daneker, the director of maintenance, and technician Mike Smith, both of whom are state employees based at Chesterfield, perform light maintenance on the helicopters.
“Most of the [aircraft] inspection stuff is done here, but can be taken care of at the other bases,” said Cullen. “For instance, tomorrow, there’s a 50-hour deal on one of the aircraft at Abingdon, so we’re going to fly the mechanic out there.”
Caring for nine aircraft, however, can become a bit much for just two technicians. So, some of the heavy maintenance is contracted out to trusted companies that will sometimes service the airplanes and helicopters right at VSP’s bases, instead of doing it elsewhere.
Members of the unit train regularly with their aircraft. And with everything from small islands to big cities, and ocean shores to 5,000-foot mountains, they have a lot to train for. Flight crews practice river rescues along the James River using both hoist and low-level flying techniques. Regular instrument proficiency check rides and flight reviews are accomplished on the pilot side of the operation, and medical skills examinations and aircraft emergency procedures training are given to flight paramedics.
“We have such a great group of guys – all of them,” said Benshoof. “But this place would not run as well as it does if it weren’t for Kathy Ellinger and Lynda Howard.” Ellinger and Howard are the administrative assistants who handle many of the details required to run the entire unit, and from what I saw during my visit, are as critical to the operation as the aircraft themselves.
“This is a great operation,” added Benshoof. “And we are all very proud of it.” I could fully understand why.
While visiting VSP’s Chesterfield base, I learned that Flight Paramedic David Powell was working his last shift before retiring after 31 years as a first responder. The 53-year-old flight paramedic had just landed after what might have been the last mission of his career.
Powell became an EMT with the Chesterfield County Fire Department in 1981, and was certified as a paramedic in 1988. In 2005, his dream of being a flight paramedic came true when he was selected to join the Med-Flight Team.
“This is the most coveted job on the fire department,” said Powell. “Everybody wants to get in here. I had tried for 12 years!”
Powell said he enjoyed knowing that he was helping save lives. But he also admitted that just being up in the air was a lot of fun. “It was beautiful flying,” he remarked while looking out the hangar door and into a clear blue sky. “It’s exciting.”
Powell did not share any stories of the citizens he has helped, nor the lives he had saved. He is not that kind of man. Instead, he quietly returned to the room full of present and former aircrew members who had come to the hangar to wish him well – and to reminisce about his stellar career with him.
When asked what his plans were after hanging up his helmet and stethoscope, he smiled and said, “I’ll be trying to figure out which river I’m going to fish on each day.”