Eagle 1, the Harford County Sheriff's Office's newly acquired Bell OH-58 helicopter, took its inaugural operational flight on the morning of April 17 in front of a crowd of leading officials in the law enforcement agency.

Chief Pilot Sean Martson revved up the engine and took flight in the $1 million helicopter on his first surveillance mission under the Sheriff's Office's new Aviation Unit, a first for the 240-year-old police agency.

"It was great. It's not just about the Sheriff's Office; it's about the whole community," said Martson, who has commercial helicopter and advanced ground experience. "Aviation and law enforcement lead to saving lives and increases the safety of people and officers on the ground."

On the first day, Martson flew for about an hour conducting surveillance on a person under investigation for stolen goods, said Lt. Lee Dunbar, who heads the Aviation Unit.

Last December, the sheriff's office announced the creation of an aviation unit with the acquisition of Bell OH-58 helicopter, named Eagle 1, that was federal surplus property. The new unit is based at the Forest Hill Industrial Airpark

There are two pilots in the new unit who are certified to fly Eagle 1, Martson and Safety Officer Charles M. Carr, who is an 11-year veteran of the Army National Guard.

The unit also has eight tactical flight officers, who will spearhead missions as pilots man the aircraft, Dunbar said.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, a pilot and tactical officer are on standby at the hangar and the helicopter will be on the tarmac ready for take off, Dunbar said. On those days, the pilot may take the aircraft up for about an hour for proactive surveillance. 

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the aircraft will be at the hangar and a pilot and tactical officer will be available on an on-call basis at the hangar, Dunbar said. On Sundays, pilots and tactical officers will be on an on-call schedule.

Although equipped to fly at night, Eagle 1 will only fly daytime missions until the pilots become night vision goggle certified, Dunbar said.

Dunbar said the pilot and tactical team can be in the air within five minutes of receiving  a call. He said with the hangar's location in Forest Hill, Eagle 1 can get to any location in the county within about five minutes, depending on the weather or other unforeseen circumstances.

The helicopter was acquired through an in-state transfer with the Department of Defense's 1033 program. Under the National Defense Authorization Act, the Secretary of Defense can transfer surplus DoD property to federal, state and local enforcement agencies.

While the acquisition of the helicopter was at no cost to the sheriff's office, the operational cost is about $300 per hour, Dunbar said. But, he said, that cost is funded by drug money seized by the department, so the operation is not a tax burden to Harford County residents or any of the surrounding localities.

Before acquiring Eagle 1, Harford County would ask for assistance from the aviation units in Baltimore County or the Maryland State Police, Dunbar said,

"It cost Baltimore County $1,000 per hour to operate their helicopter, which is a burden to their tax dollars," Dunbar said. "Maryland State Police costs between $2,000 and $2,5000 per hour for their helicopter. It's obviously a need for an aviation unit since we keep calling Baltimore County and Maryland State Police."

During the announcement of the acquisition last year, Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said the helicopter will be used for operations such as locating critically missing children and adults, high risk calls for surveillance, homeland security, marijuana eradication, critical infrastructure assessment and disaster assessment.

"It's a force multiplier," Dunbar said. "When it is deployed over a scene it can do the job of up to 12 ground units."

The helicopter will also be a critical component of policing the area's parks, the Conowingo Dam and other locations that attract large numbers of people and vehicles.

The aviation unit will service the Harford Sheriff's Office, Maryland State Police and police agencies in the local municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.