The Bell 407GX is the newest addition to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Aviation Services Division, and sports the latest in law enforcement technology.
The Sonoran Desert is one of the most extreme and diverse environments in North America. The climate ranges from winter nights dipping below freezing to sweltering 120-degree afternoons during the hottest summer days. The summer also brings heavy monsoon rains, often accompanied by lightning and unpredictable flash floods that can send powerful torrents of water churning through the urban interface.
Maricopa County in south-central Arizona is in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. It’s the fourth most populous county in the United States, encompassing 9,224 square miles and home to over four million people. While Phoenix, the state’s capital, is the population and business hub of the county, the surrounding metropolitan area comprises over 20 smaller incorporated cities and is growing rapidly in every direction.
The Salt River is a hugely popular recreation venue for tubers and rafters. However, the remote location and potential of fast currents requires a great deal of vigilance from Maricopa County’s ASD and its specialized Lake Patrol and SAR units.
Beyond the metropolitan sprawl, Maricopa County is home to the nation’s largest recreational park system. Over 120,000 acres of outdoor recreation venues are just beyond the city pavement. There are also 1,000 square miles of wilderness recreation areas. Rugged mountain peaks jut to over 7,000 feet, luring hikers, hunters and climbers. Twenty-four square miles of lakes, reservoirs and rivers attract swimmers and boaters looking to enjoy the outdoors and beat the heat.
Providing law enforcement and public safety services for this diverse region is the responsibility of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) — the largest sheriff’s office in the state, with nearly 4,000 deputy sheriffs, detentions officers and support staff. Augmenting the agency’s public safety mission is a highly regarded reserve deputy sheriff program and a thousand-member civilian volunteer posse.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio (center) joins the ASD maintenance and flight crews on the tarmac with the unit’s two Bell 407s.
At the reins of the organization is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who proudly owns the reputation as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
“I’m a high-profile guy and when you’re high-profile and you do things a little different, you draw criticism, you draw political heat,” said the no-nonsense Arpaio. “But I didn’t run for sheriff when I was 60 years old to take a car home at night. I don’t need this job.” Yet in spite of his often controversial ways, Arpaio has the unwavering support of the members of his department, and the respect of many people throughout the U.S.
In addition to traditional law enforcement field patrol functions, the MCSO commits a great deal of manpower and resources to ensure public safety in the many outdoor recreation areas throughout the county. The MCSO also has responsibility for emergency response, law enforcement and search-and-rescue (SAR) throughout the remote desert regions in the southern portion of the county. There, migrants and drug smugglers from Mexico illegally cross the border and attempt a perilous three- to five-day journey on foot across the hot, barren desert.
ASD maintenance personnel Jason Ray launched his career as an Army helicopter mechanic.
To ensure an appropriate emergency response into these remote regions, the MCSO has created several highly skilled teams of full-time and reserve deputy sheriffs and posse volunteers to staff a number of specialized divisions: the Lake Patrol Division, Mountain Patrol Division and a number of technical SAR elements, as well as the Aviation Services Division (ASD).
The ASD was created in 1988 with the department’s purchase of a used MD 500D. It was configured with an aftermarket pointed “E-model” nose and equipped with an infrared sensor and searchlight. Operations were based from a small hangar and office facility at Falcon Field in Mesa, Ariz.
Clorinda Sanchez also launched her career as an Army helicopter mechanic.
The program soon acquired a number of military surplus helicopters (OH-6s and a Hughes TH-55/269) and spare parts through the federal defense reutilization program, which provided for the transfer of surplus military equipment to civil law enforcement agencies. The surplus aircraft deemed flight-worthy were configured with a basic police package, police radios and a small Spectrolab SX-5 Nightsun, and served mostly as backup for the unit’s primary aircraft, the MD 500D.
These light turbines fulfilled the law enforcement mission and the TH-55/269 became the primary training aircraft for the unit. However, the aircraft struggled in the more performance-demanding missions, including SAR and working in high density-altitude environments.
In the late ’90s, the OH-6s were sold and were replaced by two surplus OH-58s. The department also made a significant investment with the purchase of its first new aircraft, a Bell 407, call sign FOX-1. The Bell 407 was equipped with the latest forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera and moving map and provided exactly what the ASD needed to enhance its mission capabilities, enabling such specialized operations as human external cargo (HEC) rescues.
The ASD office and hangar facility provides ample maintenance and aircraft storage capabilities within a highly secure compound and outside of congested airspace.
ASD chief pilot Kevin Kraayenbrink said, “The 407 absolutely made it possible to do hot-and-high missions, long-line missions and work in very adverse conditions like high density altitude. It also allowed us to move people inside the cabin. No more having to skid ride. We could move more personnel and equipment and do it safely.”
“We could have purchased something cheaper or more cost-effective, but we wanted something that could work well in our diverse county,” said ASD Lieutenant Henry “Hank” Brandimarte. “We have mountains, we have desert, canyons, lakes… the 407 seemed to be the best platform for us to provide search-and-rescue capabilities as well as patrol flight capabilities to the citizens.”
Acquiring the 407 also allowed the ASD to stand up its night vision goggle (NVG) program, which was an essential capability for responding to the increasing volume of nighttime SAR missions.
Deputy sheriffs in the field often find themselves outnumbered in very remote desert scenes. The helicopter provides a tremendous tactical advantage for officers and a psychological disadvantage for the bad guys.
By the early 2000s, the ASD had established itself as valuable law enforcement and SAR asset throughout the region. At one point, the division was operating two OH-58s, the 269 and two Bell 407s (one 407 was later sold due to county budget cuts). A fixed-wing component in the form of two Cessna 206s was added to facilitate prisoner extraditions throughout the western U.S. and support surveillance missions.
During the same period, the MCSO developed a partnership with a local utility, the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The CAP is responsible for managing and maintaining a 336-mile long aqueduct bringing Colorado River water from Lake Havasu halfway across the state and ending in Tucson. It’s the most expensive aqueduct system ever constructed in the U.S.
The arrangement with CAP secured a beautiful new facility for the ASD adjacent to the Phoenix Deer Valley Airport, 17 miles north of downtown. The facility provides the ASD with offices, crew facilities, a large maintenance and aircraft storage hangar, and a sizable asphalt aircraft movement area with six concrete pads. (The ASD fixed-wing assets remain housed nearby at the Deer Valley Airport.) In return for the facility, the ASD agreed to provide CAP personnel weekly security and inspection flights along the entire length of the aqueduct.
The ASD utilizes Chopper Spotters for aircraft movement around its facility.
In the years that followed, the surplus aircraft were either taken back by the military or sold to other agencies. The ASD was left with only its original, but now aging, Bell 407. Earlier this summer, however, the ASD took delivery of a new Bell 407GX. While this aircraft is similar in configuration to the original 407, the ASD spared little expense in equipping it with the latest modern technology.
The 407GX sports the latest helicopter cockpit technology from Garmin, the G1000H flight deck. It features two 10.4-inch, side-by-side high-resolution LCD screens: a primary flight display (PFD) and a multi-function display (MFD). Integrated into the system is Garmin’s Helicopter Synthetic Vision Technology, plus a helicopter terrain awareness and warning system (HTAWS) and traffic information system (TIS).
Meanwhile, the FLIR Systems Star SAFIRE 380-HDc provides true HD performance in a stabilized infrared sensor and color camera. The Star SAFIRE’s inertial measuring unit (IMU) allows seamless integration with the highly capable Churchill Augmented Reality System (ARS) moving map and can be slaved, along with the TrakkaBeam A800 searchlight, to acquire and lock on a designated target while displaying valuable information to the flight crews.
The Star SAFIRE 380-HDc from FLIR Systems provides stabilized, high-definition and long-range EO and IR imaging, enhancing ASD’s law enforcement and SAR capabilities.
A third screen, an Airborne Displays Model AB-12W, is mounted in the panel ahead of the tactical flight officer (TFO) position and displays infrared, video and moving map. A rear-facing color camera mounted below the 407GX’s tail boom provides the cockpit with a video display of the tail rotor, providing an extra layer of security when working off field. The feed can be selected and displayed through the Garmin MFD.
The ASD 407GX has dual rear sliding rear cabin doors, which the ASD crews believe are essential for their SAR mission, along with high skid gear. An exterior auxiliary lighting kit provides high-intensity illumination rearward along the tail boom to the tail rotor and the ground below the rear cabin doors. Two fixed forward lights mounted below the crew cabin provide additional illumination for takeoff and landing.
In the 407GX’s rear cabin, a remote TFO or command-and-control station provides a separate radio control head and another Airborne Displays Model AB-12W for viewing and controlling the infrared camera and ARS feed.
ASD pilot Rich Dickner goes over the 407GX radios and panels prior to launching a night shift. The two screens on the right are displays for the Garmin G1000H. The screen on the left is the TFO’s video and map display.
The completion of the 407GX was performed by Hangar One Avionics at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif. The NVG cockpit lighting and interior lighting modifications of the Garmin displays are the work of Texas-based Aero Dynamix.
For night operations, the ASD just made the transition from the traditional green phosphor NVGs to the new white phosphor model supplied by Aviation Specialites Unlimited. The technology reportedly presents a black-and-white image with better clarity and object definition and better contrast at lower light levels, and reduces eye fatigue.
“The GX provides the pilot with lots of tools,” said Kraayenbrink. “We fly a lot in congested airspace and we also fly out in remote areas and with the TIS we can spot other aircraft. And with the new Churchill system and FLIR, we’re already making amazing finds. The overlay of the streets and information on the mapping system is just incredible. So we’re safer, we’re more capable during missions.”
High skid gear provides ample ground clearance for ASD’s frequent off-field and confined area landings.
After taking delivery of the 407GX, the ASD sent its original 407 out to Hangar One for some modernization of its own. Brandimarte said, “We required system redundancy between the two aircraft. So because FOX-2 [the 407GX] has the latest and greatest equipment, we required our vendors to go back and retrofit FOX-1 with the same systems.” The division did, however, retain the services of its FLIR 8000, which lacks an IMU, thus limiting the slaving capabilities.
While the two Bell 407s provide terrific reliability and capabilities, the ASD recognizes the aircraft are still limited for some critical operations. The division hopes to one day follow the lead of a growing number of aviation units by adding a hoist-equipped medium airframe — a Bell 212 or 412, or perhaps a Bell 205 or Eagle Single — to the fleet. The ASD believes the larger airframe and hoist would dramatically enhance its SAR and tactical mission capabilities.
￼MCSO has a rich history dating back to the 1870s as part of the Arizona Territory.
Ready for the Call
Today, the ASD operates around the clock six days a week, with two crews per day flying 13-hour shifts. (On Wednesdays, the division provides limited coverage.) Crews are composed of 12 sworn deputy sheriffs and two members from the department’s volunteer posse who possess significant flying experience.
Aircraft maintenance is the responsibility of director of maintenance Duane “Randy” Davis-Yates and two full-time mechanics; all are county employees. They recently adopted Digital AirWare as the foundation of their operation’s maintenance tracking. Observed ASD Sergeant Wes Kuefer, “This system consolidates all of the different areas of our operation into one program, eliminating redundancy issues such as entries being made by pilots, mechanics and administrative staff repeatedly, or omitted all together. Managers or supervisors can have access to all aspects of the operation at any time.”
The ASD crews are quick to applaud the 407GX externally mounted public address system from Power Sonix.
While Kuefer manages the day-to-day operations of the unit, Brandimarte and Captain William Hindman provide administrative oversight. A civilian administrative coordinator acts as the office gatekeeper and attends to the many administrative needs to keep the ASD running smoothly.
The crews estimate one-third of their overall missions are law enforcement responses, while two-thirds are SAR-related. These SAR missions may range from a routine urban search for a missing person, to an HEC rescue of injured hikers from a mountain peak, to plucking stranded motorists from the roofs of their cars in a flooded roadway.
One recent notable SAR mission occurred earlier this year after two rival groups of drug smugglers encountered one another in a remote corner of Maricopa County near Gila Bend. A gun battle ensued, leaving two dead and many others wounded. Several of the injured fled back into the desert. Throughout the scene, large backpacks full of packaged marijuana were strewn about.
￼The N-number (977) assigned to the ASD’s new 407GX is the badge number of MCSO Deputy William Coleman. He was killed in 2012 in a pre- dawn ambush. Coleman’s partners returned fire and killed the suspect, who was later connected to a double homicide committed days earlier.
The ASD along with other local, state and federal agencies responded, and treated and transported those critically injured who remained at the scene. They also mounted a large SAR operation, scouring the desert for miles in an effort to find the others.
“For an agency that’s so criticized for being anti-immigration or anti-Hispanic or anti-Latino, we devote an awful lot of resources to helping people that are coming across [illegally] and find themselves in a situation,” said Brandimarte. “At the end of the day we’re all humans and we’re here to protect life and that’s what we do. That’s our primary responsibility. It’s all about preservation of life. It doesn’t matter to us your immigration status. When you call us for help we’re gonna provide the assistance.”