The aircrew consists of a pilot and a tactical flight officer (TFO). We employ a mix of civilian and sworn pilots, who must hold a current FAA commercial helicopter pilot license, and receive frequent recurrent law enforcement specific pilot training. The pilot is responsible for the operation of the aircraft, communication with air traffic control and other aircraft, and navigation of the aircraft.
The TFO is a highly specialized position filled by an experienced deputy chosen from the Patrol Division through a competitive selection process. The TFO candidate must successfully pass rigorous training to national standards before earning their wings. The TFO is responsible for monitoring and communicating with ground units and dispatch, operation of mission equipment, navigating the pilot to the scene, coordination of searches and pursuits, and disembarking to make arrests or rescues.
Helicopters have been an invaluable resource for law enforcement since 1948. The helicopter is a force multiplier because of its range of vision, quick response time and multiple tools. It is estimated that an aircrew, due to their aerial vantage point, can view an area of three square miles, compared to officers in a patrol car who can typically view only one half block. This significantly reduces search times because aircrews can visually sweep several city blocks in seconds. During pursuits air support involvement allows ground units to follow at safe distances and speeds, making the pursuit less dangerous, and substantially reducing the possibility of escape. Response times for air support are measured in seconds, compared to patrol cars, which are measured in minutes.
There have been many instances where, if the Air Support Unit was not involved, people would have lost their lives, or violent fugitives would have escaped.
San Juan County paid $1.00 each for the initial acquisition of the aircraft and nothing for the mission equipment; they were paid for entirely through federal grants and federal surplus programs. Our aircraft are maintained in-house by an FAA licensed airframe and power plant (A&P) helicopter mechanic at the Sheriff’s Office heliport, which substantially reduces maintenance expenses compared to outsourcing to a repair facility. Aircraft operating costs are also kept remarkably low by the acquisition of major replacement components free through federal surplus programs. Fuel is a large part of the hourly cost of operating a helicopter; however, this expense is significantly reduced due to federally subsidized fuel. Our total annual operating budget averages about $84,000. Consequently, the Air Support Unit costs San Juan County very little, especially when compared to other police air support units, which average about $1,000,000 per aircraft annually