The LVMPD utilizes the Hughes/MD 530F as the workhorse of the fleet. Its maneuverable characteristics make it the primary choice for routine patrol work.
As I watched the Las Vegas Metro Police Departments Bell HH-1H Huey carefully set down on a narrow rock ledge 500 feet below me, I couldnt help but marvel at the contrast I was witness to. I was standing on solid rock at an altitude of 6,000 feet in a narrow canyon devoid of people, other than the helicopters rescue team and myself; yet if I looked to the south, I could easily see the man-made canyons of the famed Nevada city, with its 150,000 or so hotel rooms.
Watching over the 100,000 or so daily visitors to Sin City, and its metropolitan population of almost two million permanent residents, falls to the LVMPDs Air Support Unit, which faces all the law enforcement challenges that come with that kind of population and daily tourist influx, plus the special ones provided by the areas varied natural elements. For instance, in addition to the extreme high winds often seen in this desert region, within the units nearly 8,000-square-mile (20,700-square-kilometer) response area, temperatures can range throughout the year from 0 to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 49 degrees Celsius), while altitudes can range from 500 feet to over 11,900 feet. Plus, while annual rainfall averages less than five inches, violent thunderstorms cause flash flooding every year.
Not surprisingly, you can experience a diverse range of daily adventures in this region. You can water ski on the largest man-made lake in the United States Lake Mead in the morning, go snow skiing in the afternoon, and then end the day by heading to Red Rock Canyon, one of the nations premier rock-climbing spots. Of course, this range of activities has led the Air Support Unit to become very proficient at performing difficult rescues (among its many varied roles).
The LVMPD Air Support Unit got its start in 1969 with a single Hughes 300; it was a joint venture between the Las Vegas Police Department and the Clark County Sheriffs Department. In 1973, the two agencies merged into the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and the Air Support Unit has grown in size and value ever since. Today, the unit operates four MD 530Fs, a Bell 407 and two Bell HH-1Hs for a diverse array of missions.
For patrol, the MD 530F is the units ship of choice. It is fast and very maneuverable, commented Sgt. Darin Garness, the units chief pilot. It also has a lot of power, which is important for the high-density-altitude conditions we have in our response area. The MD 530F is also the primary rescue ship for short-haul rescues.
All four MDs are equipped with GPS-enabled MetaMap systems. One designated night ship is also equipped with a 30-million-candlepower Spectrolab Nightsun spotlight and a Denel Optronics Argos forward-looking infrared sensor system.
While one patrol 530F is crewed 24 hours a day (although flown only a maximum of 12), seven days a week, during special events such as New Years Eve, which may witness as many as 400,000 people among the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip the unit might have as many as three ships in the air at once.
Since it can carry more people and has a longer endurance than the 530Fs, the units Bell 407 is often used to transport officers around Clark County. The ship is also used for sling-load activities: the Air Support Unit helps service mountaintop radio repeater sites throughout the county, and regularly sling-loads batteries and propane tanks weighing as much as 800 pounds (360 kilograms) to these sites, many of which are located at over 7,000 feet altitude.
The two HH-1Hs are former United States Air Force ships that were originally assigned to missile silo support. The unit modified each with an 1,800-shaft-horsepower Lycoming T53-L-703 engine and the stronger AH-1 Huey Cobra tail-rotor gearbox and transmission. The BLR FastFin modification was also installed, giving the ships greater tail rotor authority, which Garness said is especially important during summertime mountain rescues.
The Hueys are used in a variety of law enforcement roles. Said Garness, For SWAT deployments, we will use the Huey for fast roping (and the 530Fs for skid deployments). We can also place [SWAT] snipers on higher ground. For serving high-risk warrants outside the Las Vegas Valley, we are used for aerial observation and set the Huey up for medevac in case an officer is wounded.
Although the LVMPD Air Support Unit stays busy with rescue and law enforcement missions in its own area of responsibility, it will also lend a hand where needed. Since it is the only law enforcement helicopter unit in southern Nevada, it assists a wide variety of surrounding local and county agencies, plus many agencies in the neighboring states of Arizona, California and Utah. The unit also supports an alphabet soup of federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service.
Behind the scenes keeping the units diverse fleet in top shape for this range of missions are four full-time mechanics. These sometimes-unsung-but-integral unit members perform the majority of the fleets maintenance in-house, plus most of its completions, conversions and modifications. Only rebuilds of engines, transmissions and gearboxes are normally performed externally, by their respective original equipment manufacturers.
In the starring role at the LVMPDs Air Support Unit are its 18 pilots, who fly patrols as two-member teams: one pilot acting as tactical flight officer (TFO), the other flying the helicopter. Halfway through each shift, however, they will switch roles. Although, when pilots are going through their initial helicopter flight training, they act as full-time TFOs until they become qualified helicopter pilots.
We also have a temporary-duty TFO position, said Garness. We bring in officers from patrol or the detective section and complete the Phase 1 TFO training, which lasts 60 days. They then go back to their home unit and can act as [temporary] TFOs. This does a couple of things for us. First, it gives us a chance to recruit and look at officers who are interested in joining the Air Support Unit. The TFO position is the most important and difficult job in the ship. This is where we usually wash new candidates out not the pilot training. The pilot is just the chauffeur. We find some have a tough time doing police work from 500 feet. This program also allows officers to see what Air Support can and cant do for the ground officers [who] spread the word around their bureaus. We work together better as a result of this mixing of ground officers into Air Support.
The requirements for a new pilot coming into the unit are four years of ground patrol experience and at least a fixed-wing private pilot certificate. If they pass their initial evaluation, new candidates face a training program that is very structured, due to the varied missions the unit performs. The new candidate first goes through TFO training, which is broken into two phases that total 16 weeks and two checkrides.
Candidates then move on to pilot training, which is broken into nine phases, each including about 25 hours of flight time. Each phase has objective goals that ultimately result in the pilot meeting all of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administrations requirements for obtaining a commercial helicopter pilot certificate. The first six phases, and their approximately 150 hours of flight time, are geared toward obtaining a private helicopter certificate; phases 7 and 8 are geared toward obtaining the commercial certificate; and Phase 9 is devoted to learning how to fly patrol. Although pilots are considered qualified for patrol upon completion of Phase 9, they still fly with a unit flight instructor until they reach 300 hours of flight time.
From 300 to 500 hours, new pilots are allowed to fly patrol inside the valley, basically the urban area of Las Vegas, and the surrounding cities day and night, explained Garness. If they have a vehicle pursuit that leaves the valley, they cant go. At 500 hours, they can go out of the valley during the day, after going through a couple of days of familiarization flights. At 500 hours, the new pilots also begin to train to flying to the radio repeater sites. This introduces the pilot to mountain flying at high-altitude and confined-space landings. From 500 to 1,000 hours, they can do patrol, leave the valley during the day, and land at the repeater sites.
At 1,000 hours, pilots begin to train for out-of-valley flying at night, without night vision goggles; afterward they are trained on NVGs. Pilots average about 250 hours of flight time a year now, said Garness. So, it takes four years to get to the point where they are allowed to do everything related to flying patrol work. Our insurance carrier really likes this system, which is based on not only number of hours, but completed training steps.
Beyond 1,000 hours is the next pilot level, becoming a unit flight instructor, which also unlocks the final level. After a pilot becomes an instructor, we start looking at them for getting rescue-qualified, said Garness. But, We dont even look at a pilot for rescue training until they have a minimum of 2,000 hours of flight time.
Like the other stages of pilot training, rescue training is broken down into progressive phases, and once completed, the pilot must perform a mock rescue in an unknown location, working with LVMPD search and rescue personnel and a simulated victim. The pilot must search for and locate the victim, deploy the SAR personnel and equipment, bring the victim out, and then retrieve the SAR team and all their equipment. Afterwards, everyone who participated in the test critiques the pilot.
Of the 18 pilots in the unit, six are rescue qualified and seven are certified flight instructors.
SAR personnel, meanwhile, are drawn from the LVMPDs search and rescue section. The section is staffed by seven highly trained, full-time officers and approximately 50 volunteers. The full-time officers double as crew chiefs on the Hueys, have medical training up to the paramedic level, and serve as tactical medical officers on every SWAT callout.
While the LVMPD Air Support Unit strives to bring as much structure as possible to its operations and training, one of the biggest challenges facing the unit is completely out of its control.
As many people are aware, the Las Vegas area was hard-hit in the recent economic recession, having literally gone from boom to bust. This has affected all municipal services, including the Air Support Unit.
The impact of the economy has hit air support units around the country very hard, said Lieut. Joseph Ojeda (who was still commander of the LVMPD Air Support Unit during the time of this interview, but has since retired). Helicopters have a huge impact on police budgets. I have one of the smaller sections in the department, but one of the larger budgets. We have been around a long time and been able to prove our worth, but when the economy tanked we looked at how we could cut our own budget to reduce costs. Back then, we flew 18 to 19 hours in a 24-hour period. We reduced that to 12 hours a day. That has saved a lot of money.
Of course, saving cost has meant reducing services. As Ojeda explained: We are not doing as many pursuits, because we are not in the air as much. So, it has affected, directly and indirectly, our ability to do police work at the unit. We are more exact in what kind of work we will do for other sections of the department, since we only have 12 flight hours per day to work with. Then, we have the missions we must respond to, like search and rescue. We do about 170 SAR missions a year now. I think that also helps keep us in business. We have become so vital to so many other agencies with the different kinds of work we do.
Fortunately, things are not all doom and gloom. Because of long-range budget planning, the unit was able to move into a new 38,000-square-foot facility at the North Las Vegas Airport in 2009. This in turn made maintenance much easier, as the new hangar has a designated maintenance bay with a 12-ton overhead crane that can lift any ship in the fleet. Another bit of good news happened in 2010, when the unit took delivery of a new MD 530F (although Ojeda said this will be the last new aircraft for many years to come).
Good news or bad news, though, the unit continues to look to the future.
Said Ojeda: I have always believed that in order to stay safe and successful you have to progress. . . . Just because we have always done something one way and it works, doesnt mean there isnt a better way to do it. . . . For instance, we are about to start training on NVGs for night, over-water rescues, something we have never done before.
After spending several days with this unit, I couldnt help but pick up on the enthusiasm of every member. Indeed, for the most part, they seemed too busy worrying about how to protect the ground officers and the citizens and tourists of Las Vegas to worry about the things (like economic pressures) that are beyond their control.
I know I am living my dream right now, being a cop and leading this unit, said Ojeda with a big smile. I still love coming to work every day.
Barry Smith has been a paramedic for over 30 years and currently works for the Nevada State EMS Office. He is also a prolific writer who has penned over 250 magazine articles and six books on aviation and emergency services.