Posted 14 days ago ago by jhadmin
Fresno is a large inland county in Central California covering 6,000 square miles of varied terrain supporting a population of over 1 million. The county extends from sea level with many square miles of farmland to the towering Sierra mountain range reaching up to 13,000 feet. In between are the City of Fresno and other populated urban areas. During the summer months temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees and in the winter the mountains can go below freezing. Covering this varied terrain since 1856 is the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office consisting of 425 deputies.
An important part of the sheriff's office is its Air Support Unit that went operational in 1997 with two new MD-500E Helicopters with the call sign EAGLE 1 and EAGLE 2. The unit has hangar and office facilities at the Fresno-Yosemite Airport, a convenient location in the center of the county.
The MD-500E has been economical and capable but proved to be a bit under-powered in some of the extreme conditions in which the unit operated. For this reason the two MD-500E airframes were upgraded with Rolls Royce 250R 450hp engines, replacing the original Allison 250 420hp engines for increased performance. The R model gives crews a bit more power and some in the unit feel a reasonable increase in performance.
By 2016, the MD-500Es were coming up on 20 years of service and it was decided there was a need to buy an additional helicopter. In 2018, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit bought and took delivery of the latest version of the high performance version of the MD-500: the MD-530FF with the Rolls Royce 650hp Rolls Royce 250-C30 engine. The MD-530FF has a substantial increase in hover performance in high, hot, and heavy conditions. During mountain search and rescue missions the aircraft might make the difference between getting people to safety or hiking them out on the ground. Fresno’s sheriff’s office then had the MD-530FF retrofitted with a Police Mission Equipment package that included: “Gen2” Howell Aspen engine monitoring screens, a Garmin 500H avionic screen, a Technisonic TDFM 9300 radio, a Flightcell satcom, an AeroComputer 6000 mapping system, a TFO Macro-Blue display, Canon image-stabilized 15x50 binoculars, ANVIS 9 White Phosphor night vision goggles, two Raptor gun racks mounting Armalite AR-15 rifles with EOtech sights. The exterior includes: a FLIR 380C camera, an upgraded public address loudspeaker/siren, a Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun, a wire-strike protection kit, exterior LED lights, Bearpaw skid snow pads, and a belly cargo hook.
The aircraft also carries first aid & survival equipment. Additional helicopter rescue equipment includes: a flotation rescue cinch collar, a CMC Rescue Bauman Bag Air Warrior rescue harness and PFD with pick-off straps.
PILOTS AND TFO
The helicopters are crewed by a deputy pilot and deputy tactical flight officer (TFO). The unit is allocated four pilots total: three helicopter pilots and one fixed-wing pilot. All the helicopter pilots are commercial rated and need to be comfortable with hot and high conditions, as mountain work is a big part of the job. Also, confined area landings and external load work are routine during rescues and for insertion of anti-drug personnel so the pilots practice these landings as often as possible.
The TFO takes responsibility for controlling ground tactical situations from the air. He operates the radios and communicates with ground command deputies. The TFO controls the helicopter mission equipment, such as the SX-16 spotlight and FLIR thermal camera, and helps set up a perimeter. He will then become the aerial support commander to give the deputies the support they need. It is not unusual for the helicopter to land in remote areas so the TFO can backup and assist ground deputies.
In rescue situations, the TFO becomes the airborne rescue specialist. Because the MD500 series is not hoist equipped the TFO might be required to step out on the skid during a water or river rescue short haul and pick up the victim. The TFO might pull a victim into the back cabin. For this, the aircraft might be required to land first and remove the rear doors. On a cliff rescue, the aircraft might need to do a one-skid landing allowing the victim to climb aboard with the TFO helping them. During either water or cliff rescues, the flight crew might need to long-line a victim out. Other situations might have flight crews deploying search and rescue personnel through one-skid or toe-in operations. During rescue operations, they may do long-line rescues using a 75-foot line attached to the belly of the MD-500. The TFO is hooked to the line and the pilot flies the TFO to the victim. The TFO hooks the victim into the harness, or if injured to a stokes litter, and the pilot brings them to a landing zone.
Another rescue method is a type of long-line rescue using a “cinch collar” used to rescue victims in the water. The TFO, standing on the skid of the hovering helicopter, lowers a type of life preserver (cinch collar) to the victim, who is lifted out of the water and flown to shore.
The TFO occasionally need to exit the helicopter after landing for law enforcement activity or to talk to a ground party. Since these scenarios might be many miles and many minutes from backup support the TFOs and pilots carry AR-15 rifles aboard the aircraft and are well trained in their use. The unit also trains in Airborne Use of Force (AUF), literally shooting from the helicopter itself toward a ground target. This type of scenario could involve an active shooter or when a deputy is held down by suspect gunfire in a remote area.
Air Support Unit flight crews are trained to fly with NVGs and these have proven to be a game changer. The units use the very capable ANVIS-9, Generation-3 goggles. The crews fly to very dark areas of the county and the NVGs raises the safety level to a new level. Pilot Ryan Walker told Rotorcraft Pro, “Before NVGs we simply wouldn't go to parts of the county because of how dark it got. Now we can go almost anywhere and be useful and support our ground guys without getting nervous or fatigued.”
As with many other air support units with a large area to cover the Fresno County Sheriff's Office can be chasing a suspect in downtown Fresno, 30 minutes later searching for a lost elderly person in the farmland, and an hour after that doing a one-skid to get a person off a cliff at 8,000 feet in the mountains. During the summer, the unit could be supporting anti-drug operations throughout the county and then requested to help during a river rescue doing a short haul. Winter operations can take the helicopter to the mountains to search for an overdue hiker or for rescue people who got lost and didn't wear the right gear.
The unit also works with sheriff detectives to do scene photography and surveillance of suspects during anti-drug operations or other criminal investigations. The unit routinely gets called out during car chases and to support ground units, both day and night. During suspect searches, a helicopter crew sets up a perimeter and stays above to watch out for anything that can reveal the suspect. At night, the FLIR heat-sensing camera can find a suspect in the bushes and foliage and gives additional protection to the deputies on the ground from an ambush.
The Air Support Unit also operates closely with other units in the sheriff's office, such as the narcotics unit, providing photography and surveillance support. The unit also supports the Dive Team by inserting divers into water during both searches and body recoveries. The helicopters support sheriff boating assets as a search platform and by assisting water rescues. It supports ground units during car chases, looks for stolen vehicles and lost people, and works a variety of other functions.
The Air Support Unit patrols Fresno County and will provide support to any law enforcement agency within the county. They are available to local, state, and federal agencies inside and outside Fresno County. These can be missions for: drug surveillance, federal criminal investigations, combating terrorism, searches, rescues, and aerial photography. A Fresno County deputy told Rotorcraft Pro, “Our sheriff strongly supports helping our law enforcement neighbors and federal agencies when a request comes in, so we go where needed.”
The unit has a single fixed-wing airplane, a 2002 Cessna Turbo 206 Stationair (call sign: “EAGLE 3”). The plane is used mostly for surveillance, transport, and occasional patrol. It is fully instrument flight IFR capable. The cockpit is equipped with digital flight navigation and auto-pilot systems. Law enforcement equipment consist of radios, a digital video recorder, and a camera system capable of observing and video recording activity from high altitudes. It has fuel endurance to stay airborne for many hours and provides a quiet and unobtrusive surveillance platform when stealth is required.
All three helicopters and airplane are maintained in-house from an outside vendor. Advanced Helicopter of Woodland, California, provides two mechanics assigned full time for the four aircraft. All daily and hourly inspections are accomplished at the facility allowing the aircraft to be available at all times. A sheriff’s office Sergeant told us, “We keep the aircraft in the best condition possible and it shows with our availability rates. The MD-500/530FF are proven and reliable . We have operated them so long that there aren't very many surprises from them.
The MD 500 series has been a great machine for the sheriff’s office for over two decades. With its small footprint during rescues and its smooth rotor and low cost of operation, the plan is to keep the MD-530FF for years to come. In the future a hoist-equipped light helicopter might be a consideration but until then the MD-500 series helicopter will continue on supporting the people of Fresno County, California.