Commercial, Public Service

Air-One: Volunteer Professionals

By By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | July 1, 2014
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Air-One Emergency Response Coalition supplies helicopter support for a variety of roles, including law enforcement and SAR. Photo by Bruce S. Edwards

For those police departments that cannot afford to spend hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars per year to operate an aircraft of their own, the usual remedy is to ask a neighboring agency that has one for assistance. But what happens when that unit cannot, or by departmental guidelines is not, allowed to break away from its primary duties to assist them?

One prospect has been to share a helicopter unit the same way smaller local governments sometimes share emergency dispatch centers and firefighting apparatus. But that is usually easier said than done. Huge impasses frequently arise when department heads and elected officials try to iron out who will pay for what, and how each can be assured that they’ll get all they’re paying for. Once in a while, a deal can be struck. Most of the time, though, the idea is dismissed as being administratively impractical.


Just 50 miles north of Chicago, however, one group of people has garnered the administrative, political and financial backing to provide the smallest of towns with the same helicopter services enjoyed by big cities. It’s the Air-One Emergency Response Coalition (Air-One), which serves the northern third of Illinois and the bottom third of Wisconsin – roughly everything between Chicago to Milwaukee. Which agencies does Air-One belong to? None of them. Which jurisdictions does it serve? All of them. Who pays for it? Whoever feels compelled to do so. Because Air-One is an operation completely unto itself.

Established as a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 charitable organization, Air-One is governed by a board of directors comprised of public safety officials, civic leaders, and regular citizens whose only goal is to ensure that the region has at least one helicopter at its disposal when needed. It does this through donations of cash, equipment, supplies and even helicopters from a variety of sources. It then brings in volunteers to crew the aircraft when needed.

It all began in 2003, when philanthropist Richard Klarchek made his personal Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) EC135 available to the Winthrop Harbor (Ill.) Police Department – at no cost – for public safety missions. And even though it was only operated on an as-needed basis for its 6,500 residents, it proved to be a valuable resource, especially since there were no other readily available air assets.

As the value of a helicopter became more apparent, town officials realized that the entire region could benefit from such a tool. But they also understood that their lone helicopter could not serve everyone, nor should the owner of the helicopter be expected to absorb the additional cost. So, several community leaders and public safety officials came up with a plan to create an air support unit that all could benefit from, without any single jurisdiction or individual getting stuck with the financial burden.

Air-One spent $1 million outfitting its fleet for public safety. N79PD is equipped with an AeroComputers X3 moving map, FLIR 8000 thermal imager, LoJack receiver, AvMap EKP IV satellite receiver, and Garmin GPSmap 496. Photo by Ernie Stephens

In 2005, Winthrop Harbor’s helicopter program morphed into the Law Enforcement Aviation Coalition (LEAC) as a not-for-profit organization run by a board of directors from all parts of the community. It relied on donations from several income streams to get the unit ready. Free, surplus aircraft to get started with were available from the Dept. of Defense 1033 Excess Property program, but could only be received by state or local entities. So, Winthrop Harbor applied for and received one Bell OH-58C Army helicopter trainer, which, by law, they could allow LEAC to fly for public safety missions, provided the town retained ownership.

Local towns, counties, volunteer fire departments, corporations and individuals then chipped in to get the aircraft painted and mission-ready.

Volunteer pilots also stepped forward to help with the program. Most were former military aviators. Some were current or prior private sector drivers pilots. But all were willing to fly without compensation.

“Every week we get calls from low-time pilot who say. ‘Hey, I’ve got 300 hours and I want to volunteer,’” said Michael Bitton, the program’s director of operations, as well as a commander on the Winthrop Harbor Police Dept. “They’re welcome to come and pump gas, but our minimums are high.”

The minimum experience for a program pilot - both then and now - are a commercial rotorcraft license, 1,500 hours total time in rotorcraft, and 250 hours in turbine helicopters. An instrument rating is not required at the time of application, but the candidate must be able to obtain one once brought into the unit.

Flying along side of the pilots were volunteer tactical flight officers (TFOs), who were sworn police officers that flew while off-duty.

Pilots and TFOs were placed on a monthly callout schedule, because there weren’t enough calls for service to justify staffing their hangar at Waukegan Regional Airport (KUGN) around the clock. But when an aircraft was needed, requesting agencies would call the Winthrop Harbor emergency dispatch center, and the on-call crew would be summoned.

In its first few years, the program experienced great success and praise around the entire region for the assistance it gave in catching fleeing felons and finding missing people. But the aircraft soon became a formidable tool for SAR operations, medical extractions from hard-to-reach places, and even fire spotting. This drove the decision to officially change the name of the organization to its current moniker: Air-One Emergency Response Coalition.

Today, Air-One flies five OH-58C, one UH-1N and one UH-1V; all of which are refurbished military aircraft equipped with police radios, FLIR systems, search lights, moving maps, and instrument panels that support the crews’ night vision goggles. With Lake Michigan nearby water rescue equipment is also aboard each helicopter. Rescue hoists are on order, and digital downlink systems are being eyed.

“Part of what we did was we get involved with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Cook County Dept. of Homeland Security, which controls about 75 percent of the money that’s coming into the state for homeland security purposes,” said Chief Joel Brumlik of the Winthrop Harbor Police Dept., who also serves as the chairman of Air-One’s 18-person board of directors. “When they saw the value of Air-One, that helped us get the lion’s share of funding that we needed to outfit the helicopters and do the training we need.”

Air-One’s helicopters operate from two bases; Chicago/Rockford International (KRDF), located 79 miles northwest of Chicago; and the original hangar at Waukegan Regional Airport.

Maintenance is provided under contract by Bill Coolbaugh, an airframe and powerplant mechanic based in Kenosha, Wisc. All work is performed to FAR Part 135 standards, with light work being handled at Air-One’s hangars, and heavy maintenance being completed at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport (KJVL). Extra, non-flyable aircraft were acquired from the Army to cannibalize for spare parts. “We’ve probably put $1 million into each of these aircraft in refurbishment,” said Bitton. “But we were able to select and receive quality aircraft that had good times on the engines, rotors and transmissions. They’re good, sound ships.”

Today, Air-One is staffed by 70 volunteers; enough to have a crew on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year. If a police mission is called in, a sworn police officer will be the TFO. If it’s a search and rescue request that might include the need for medical assistance, a TFO with EMT or paramedic certification will launch. Any jurisdiction within the range of Air-One’s aircraft can request their assistance. And under the previous system, the dispatcher receiving a request for Air-One would almost-automatically send a crew out. But that had to change when they were being launched for incidents that sometimes weren’t practical, thus wasting precious operating dollars.

“We really had to start scrutinizing missions,” said Brumlik, a retired Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, and one of the founders of Air One. “So, we came up with a gut-based formula for when we have to sit something out.”

Air-One has three hangar locations, but flies its missions out of Chicago/Rockford International (KRDF), as well as the location shown here at Waukegan Regional Airport.

Now, any time a call for Air-One comes in, one of four screeners, including Brumlik and Bitton, are notified, and will use a digital assessment form - and their many years of police and aviation experience - to decide if the mission meets their launch criteria. That criteria includes, but is not limited to, the type of incident, weather conditions, probability of effectiveness, and safety risks. But the policy also commands crewmembers to reject or abort a mission if anyone feels that the risks are too high.

Right now, approximately 60 percent of the unit’s missions are SAR over land and water, with the remaining being a mix of everything from felony searches to emergency management assessments.

Training is a huge priority in the Air-One program, and was considered a must from the outset. It began by reaching out to the established experts, such as the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, the Los Angeles Police Department, and Ashland, Ore.-based Air Rescue Systems. But over the past few years, agencies have also been coming to them for training.

“The majority of what we do, we do as volunteers. But we have an amount of [on-duty] time when we’re allowed to train,” said Sgt. Curtis Gregory, a supervisor with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and one of several deputies who also serve as TFOs with Air-One. “My department has been very supportive of the program, so they allow us some privileges in order to [fly] for Air-One... and they bought us our flight suits and helmets.”

As it stands, Air-One has established a record of effective, professional, accident-free service to its local community, as well as a distant one. And it did so using a organization model that many have never been able to make work. But Air-One’s directors feel there is even more to accomplish.

“I think that some of the challenges that are inherent in this kind of an organization are like [those] in a volunteer fire department: How do you recruit your volunteers and keep them motivated?,” observed Prof. Henry Perritt of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, a lawyer and aeronautical engineer, who serves as an Air-One board member, and has written extensively on police practices. “But I think this is a wonderful model. I think the quality of training they do [and] their respect for safety is something that can usefully be imitated by people around the country.”

“My biggest issue right now is with what we don’t do: fly routine, regular patrols all the time,” said Brumlik. “We don’t have the operational funding to do that. It would be a huge advantage if it were already in the air.”

Related: Police News

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