Once used to find the enemy on the battlefield, five helicopters worth more than $1.5 million now sit on an Army airfield in Edgewood, awaiting their reincarnation as crime fighters in Baltimore County.
They're bigger, faster and safer than the helicopters now used by the county. And they're free.
Thanks to a Department of Defense donation program, the Bell OH-58 Jet Ranger helicopters promise to take the tiny county police aviation unit to new heights.
"We'll go from a rinky-dink little outfit to a more professional level," said Officer Roy Taylor, a helicopter pilot who helped start the unit in 1983 by donating a used Cessna airplane. "With the new helicopters, we can do our jobs and do it well."
The Jet Rangers can travel up to 140 mph, and have a 250-mile range. They can go from Relay in the southern tip of the county to Maryland Line on the Pennsylvania border in 10 to 15 minutes -- a trip that would take more than 30 minutes for one of the county's current helicopters.
Patrolling the county's 610 square miles of land will be a lot easier, Officer Taylor said.
"While the chase is going on . . . you hear them calling for you on the radio because they need you," he said, referring to the current helicopters. "You want to get there, but you just can't because your helicopter's not fast enough. That's frustrating."
The Jet Rangers are slated to be added to the unit soon, pending County Council approval.
Chairman Vincent J. Gardina said the council must consider how much money is needed to operate the helicopters and how many officers are needed to staff the unit.
"If we have a bunch of helicopters sitting in a hangar, they're useless to us unless we have enough people to run them," he said. "I think it's necessary that we replace the existing helicopters because they're high maintenance and have had a lot of down time. I support the concept of new helicopters, and I think the council will support it, too."
The initial cost will be about $20,000 to $30,000 to refurbish each Jet Ranger with new radios, a paint job and search light, but only one helicopter at a time will be phased into the unit during a few years, said Lt. Don R. Robey, unit commander. The cost is quite a bargain compared with the $350,000 needed to buy a used Jet Ranger or about $800,000 for a new one, he said.
"We've even got almost $2 million worth of Jet Ranger parts sitting in our warehouses to fix the helicopters if we need to," he said. "It's all free."
Last year, as the Department of Defense tightened its belt, more than 1,100 Jet Rangers were declared surplus and removed from Army inventory. "Project Northstar" was created to help fight the drug war, and several hundred of the helicopters, used for light observation duties, were distributed to law enforcement agencies around the nation.
From North Carolina to California, police agencies have taken advantage of the 152 Jet Rangers donated by Project Northstar. In Maryland, the state police and Baltimore County are the only agencies participating in the program.
County police say the helicopters are sorely needed by the aviation unit, which has six pilots and three aircraft: a 1993 single-engine plane, a 1992 two-seat helicopter and a 1967 Army four-seat helicopter. Last year, the unit responded to 2,300 calls for service, assisted in 224 arrests, and helped spot $1.4 million worth of marijuana plants.
The department spends about $100,000 a year for maintenance, insurance and fuel because the heavy flight time takes a toll on the three aircraft, Lieutenant Robey said. Although the Jet Rangers cost about $250 per hour to operate, compared with about $142 per hour for the two-seater helicopter, they will help contain maintenance costs, he added.