Law enforcement officers are creatures of contradiction. They believe in routine, but got into the business of public safety because they don’t want a nine-to-five job doing the same old thing day after day. They like order, but you’d never know that if you were to see a group of them at a local bar once they are off duty. And even though they will pledge their undying loyalty to just one police car, they’ve been known to switch that loyalty to a different model once they have driven it for a few months. And so it goes with their helicopters. (I know, because I was once a flying police officer myself.)
Currently, every major helicopter company has a model that is used in police service, albeit some more than others. Listed alphabetically by manufacturer, the models that have found the most popularity with law enforcement agencies have been AgustaWestland’s A109 (they began calling it the AW109 about a year ago); Bell’s 206B JetRanger, 206L LongRanger and 407; Eurocopter’s AS350 A-Star; MD Helicopters’ MD500 series; Robinson’s R44; and Schweitzer’s 300, now called the Sikorsky S300. Yes, other makes and models are used by law enforcement, but these are the most common ones used for pure airborne law enforcement, as opposed to medical transport and police work.
But if you peer through the door of police hangars across North America, chances are you will find two models of helicopters with a much greater frequency than the others. They are the Eurocopter AS350 A-Star and the Bell 206B, 206L and 407. I’m lumping the AS350 B2 and B3 together, as well as the three Bells, because the people who participated in this and previous surveys rarely cited inter-manufacturer differences that were specific to one particular AS350 or 206B/L or 407 variant.
Before examining which of the two bloodlines is preferred, a short history lesson may be in order.
Back in the mid 1960s when police chiefs and sheriffs began to officially add air units to their organizational charts, the helicopter of choice was almost always the piston-driven Bell 47; that bubble-nosed, girder-tailed veteran of the Korean War and star of the long-running television show, "M*A*S*H." Heck, even the "Batcopter," which was flown by comic book crime fighters Batman and Robin, was a fancifully modified Bell 47!
By the late 1970s, the turbine-powered Bell 206B Jet Ranger, which gained notoriety as the first helicopter designed with both military and commercial applications in mind, nudged the venerable but aging model 47 out to pasture to become the most popular helicopter wearing a badge. The Hughes 369, the forerunner to what is now the MD500, as well as the piston-powered Schweitzer 269, were runners up. That was it for choices. And frankly, it worked well. The 47s and the 269s were "just the facts, ma’am" helicopters that were inexpensive to acquire and operate, but could only carry a crew of two. The 369s and the JetRangers were technically five-place helicopters, which gave them the versatility to carry more gear, take other officers aloft, and even chauffeur the occasional government official in an effort to curry favor — and a friendly attachment — to the helicopter unit.
From my vantage point as a helicopter pilot in the late 1980s to my retirement from the job of police pilot a couple of years ago, law enforcement agencies still chose the Hughes 269/Schweitzer 300 for fledgling units or small city patrols. And even though the company that owned the 369 went from being Hughes to McDonnell Douglas, to Boeing, to MD Helicopters during the course of the years, the hearty little egg-shaped helicopter remained a much-loved police mount.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of the late 1990s, however, came the French-built Eurocopter (formerly Aerospatiale) A-Star. It was originally called the Ecureuil, which is French for squirrel.
The Ecureuil’s Lycoming turbine made the six-seat, light single-engine helicopter a non-contender in police circles; that, however, is until it was given a Turbomecca engine with a lot more horses and changed its demeaning name (in America, anyway) from squirrel to A-Star. All of a sudden, law enforcement agencies began following their European counterparts and giving them a try.
In 2003, MD Helicopters started experiencing financial difficulties, causing its parts supply lines to all but cease. When some police agencies feared having to ground their beloved 500s for want of parts, they began looking to other brands to fly. The obvious choice, it seemed, was Bell, which was enjoying success with its four-bladed, five-seat 407, as well as the 206L LongRanger. So, there was a surge in the purchase of police Bells.
Bell began churning out aircraft for law enforcement agencies, as well as continuing to feed the parts-hungry OH-58s — the military version of the 206B — that were seeing heavy service in the Iraq War and in Afghanistan in the War on Terrorism. As the wait time for new 206Ls and 407s increased, police chiefs and sheriffs, who were in a hurry to "use or lose" Homeland Security grant money, looked to Eurocopter (renamed American Eurocopter in honor of their U.S.-based manufacturing facility in Fort Worth, Texas) for a quick turnaround on new helicopters. They were comforted to discover that the A-Star was not as squirrelly as they had once thought and began buying them up. The two biggest converts were the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Phoenix Police Department. With L.A. County — owners of the largest police helicopter fleet in the country — it meant swapping a dozen MD520s and MD600s for AS350s. Phoenix — the 1991 launch customer for the tail rotor-less MD520 NOTAR — traded its fleet of nine aircraft for three AS350s and three AgustaWestland AW119s. The door for the AS350 to enter the U.S. police market, which had been unlocked by the City of Los Angeles Police Department a few years earlier when it bought several A-Stars, had now been kicked wide open. Cops were telling other cops that the A-Star was a good helicopter, too.
Who bought how many helicopters, what kind they bought and when they bought them is difficult to track, but when the heavy spending days of the post September 11 world settled down, Bell, the formerly anointed kingpin of turbine police helicopters, had lost a lot of its law enforcement market share to Eurocopter. MD Helicopter was turning its financial life around under new management, thus keeping the remaining faithful MD500 lovers from leaving the fold. But the company effectively missed out on the feeding frenzy that made up the public service and military helicopter markets from 2003 to 2007 because potential buyers were still skeptical of the company’s strength.
The result is a new helicopter order, where federal, state and local peace officers are overwhelmingly flying Bell’s 206B, 206L and 407 lines, or Eurocopter’s AS350 B1, B2 and B3 family of aircraft. After speaking with dozens of airborne law enforcement personnel, a very small list of deal-breaking differences led public safety heads to select one brand of helicopter over the other.
The first degree of separation, if you will, was in size. The AS350 is a taller, longer machine with a larger, more open cabin.
"It’s a million times better than the Bell," said Officer Matthew C. Jackson, chief tactical flight officer of the Baltimore County (Md.) Police Department of its three AS350s. "In this cabin, I can literally climb in the backseat during flight [to work a rescue hoist], and with the extra space, I have more equipment I can carry."
Baltimore County also flies with a third officer as often as possible to reduce the workload during pursuits. "We’ve got a lot of big boys here," chuckled Sergeant Ron Wines, Baltimore’s chief pilot. "It’s nice having a lot of room to work up there." Both he and Jackson added that the extra space allows them to carry deployable flotation devices for water rescues, and that the lack of a wall between the front and the back seats gives everyone onboard an unsurpassed field of view of the outside world.
Lieutenant Tony Minnis, the assistant aviation section commander for the Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office agrees that his flight crews liked the spacious cabin of the AS350 they examined when hunting for a new helicopter, but found it to be of little consequence when compared to their decades-long association with Bell. "The biggest factor was that we had a relationship with Bell," said Minnis, whose agency has been flying OH-58s for more than 20 years, and 407s since 1997. "We have four mechanics who are tooled for Bell," he added, explaining that it was more practical to stick with an aircraft the agency was already well-capable of supporting.
Power always comes into the conversation whenever aircraft are compared. Matching the A-Star with, in this case, the 407, was no exception.
"It has tons of power," said Wines of Baltimore County’s blue and white AS350 B3s with the Turbomecca 2B1 powerplants. "It’s great for doing rescues in and carrying passengers."
Minnis saw it differently. "We didn’t see enough of a difference in power to make us stray from our comfort zone," he said of Orange County’s decision to stick with Bell. Its 407s came equipped with the Rolls-Royce 250-C47B engine.
Both officers, however, admitted that moving up from the old surplus Bell OH-58s their departments had been flying made almost anything else seem like a rocket by comparison.
And then there’s the cost factor. How much did police operators have to pay for their Bells and Eurocopters. The answer to that was about what could be expected from a government agency and a pair of helicopter manufacturers who have been slugging it out in the marketplace for several years, now: "No comment." Understandably, federal, state and local government police officers are heavily restricted from talking about sale prices, high-ranking officials never like to discuss money issues, and aircraft manufacturers, also understandably, don’t want to discuss the intricacies of the special deals they gave to make it to the boardroom of the competition. But, both Minnis and Wines admitted that cost carried a lot of weight when trying to decide which helicopter to purchase.
"It’s not that big a difference," said Minnis when asked about what his county paid for its 2007 Bell 407 compared to the price they would have paid for a comparably equipped AS350 B2 or B3.
Wines said Baltimore’s 2007 A-Star was "priced comparably" with the 407.
Both Minnis and Wines were representative of other officers — and myself, for that matter — with their comparisons of the Eurocopter A-Star versus the Bell 206s and 407. There’s just no way to say one aircraft is an inherently better police helicopter than the other, unless you ask the sales representatives of the various helicopter companies. And as crazy as that might sound, sales people in the aviation world will often put the needs of a potential customer ahead of getting a commission. It is not uncommon to have one say, "My helicopter is not going to be what you want it to be, and here’s why." After all, they know that each agency has its own set of priorities, working environment and budget to take into consideration. Matching those issues with the wrong aircraft is a reputation killer for the sales rep and the company he or she represents.
But regardless of whether Eurocopter or Bell make the best police helicopter, all glory can be fleeting. Being the two most popular police helicopters today only makes them the two most popular police helicopters today. All of the other companies have regular discussions on how to unseat the leaders. Who will have the most sought after police helicopters five years from now? Only time will tell.