The Harford Sheriff's Office announced the creation of an aviation unit with the acquisition of a Bell OH-58 helicopter named "Eagle 1."
Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said the part-time unit should be fully functional by the beginning of 2014.
"If an emergency happened today, we would send the helicopter up with our two pilots," Bane said. "But we plan to be ready at the beginning of the new year once we've had a chance to train our tactical flight officers."
The $1 million helicopter was acquired by an in-state transfer through the Department of Defense's (DoD) 1033 program. Under the National Defense Authorization Act, the Secretary of Defense can transfer surplus DoD property to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
Based on a 2010 proposal for an aviation program, the sheriff's office discussed the feasibility and affordability of an aviation unit and traveled to Aberdeen Proving Ground to discuss the public safety benefit of their military aviation unit, Bane said.
"If law enforcement in Harford County is going to protect the citizens it must take advantage of every asset at its disposal," Bane said Tuesday morning during a press conference at the Forest Hill Business Airpark, where the helicopter will be stationed.
The helicopter will be used for calls including critically missing children and adults, high risk calls for surveillance, homeland security, critical infrastructure assessment, marijuana eradication, recovery and mitigation and disaster assessment, Bane said.
"We are increasing our efficiencies with air support," Bane said. "Air support is one of those technologies that is a force multiplier. It is difficult to avoid apprehension when you are being followed in the air."
Bane said the aviation unit will be a critical component to policing areas like Harford County's parks, the Conowingo Dam and other infrastructures.
The aviation department will service the Harford Sheriff's Office, Maryland State Police and police departments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.
Federally designated areas of Harford County, like the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, will also be patrolled by the Harford County Sheriff's aviation unit.
"We would just need to get clearance to fly over," Lt. Lee Dunbar, of the Sheriff's Office, said. "We would notify them we would be coming in and make sure the air space is clear."
The helicopter will be flown by one of two certified, trained sheriff deputies with assistance by a tactical flight officer. Charles M. Carr, watch commander for the day shift at the southern precinct, is one of the two pilots who will be manning the aircraft. Carr is a 11-year veteran of the Army National Guard.
"I'm excited to be able to do something like this," Carr said. "It adds another level to law enforcement in the county."
Bane said the Sheriff's Office will be training several deputies as tactical flight officers in the coming days.
The sheriff's office estimates the helicopter will cost $125,000 in yearly maintenance and fuel and $300 per hour to operate. Assets seized from Harford County's narcotics team will fund the helicopter maintenance, Bane said.
"Drug dealers in Harford County fund the total cost directly and indirectly," Bane said.
Aaron Tomarchio, of Harford County Executive David Craig's office, said the sheriff's aviation unit is "taking bad money from bad people and using it for great things."
Other area counties, like Baltimore County, fund their patrol aircraft through taxpayer dollars. Based on studies, it would cost around $1.72 per taxpayer in Harford County to fund the helicopter, Bane said.
"If we found there was no need for the helicopter, or funding was an issue, we would suspend the program," Bane said. "But we think the people in Harford County would want to keep it."
In the past year, Harford County has asked for the assistance of the aviation units of neighboring jurisdictions to assist with public safety efforts. The sheriff's office has used Baltimore County's helicopter 11 times, the Maryland State Police's helicopter five times and the Maryland National Guard's helicopter five times for marijuana eradication in 2013.
"More and more their services are not available when requested and at times the aircraft are servicing our neighbors when we request it," Bane said.
The helicopter will be used on an as-needed basis, Bane said. The Sheriff's Office estimates the aviation unit will be used about 25 times in 2014.
Dunbar, of the Harford Sheriff's Office, said the helicopter is equipped with a Nightsun spotlight to provide visuals for suspects on the run in the dark.
"The helicopter could be 500 to 700 feet in the air and light up the ground like Camden Yards," Dunbar said.
Dunbar said the helicopter will also be equipped with thermal imaging software which can be used to track suspects on the run.
The helicopter's FAA registration number "N554HC" is dedicated to the honor Dep. William McMillion, an ardent support of the aviation unit initiative, who passed away last year.
McMillion's family was at the press conference dressed in baby blue shirts in memory of the deputy.
Melissa McMillion said she was shocked to discover the helicopter had been dedicated to her late husband.
"We didn't know anything about it," the widow said. "It's a great tribute to him and a wonderful symbol to all his years with the Sheriff's Office. He flew with the marijuana drug unit and it's like he will also be a part of the team."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun