A well equipped aviation unit is one of the most valuable assets a law enforcement agency can have and Orange County has one of the best. The Sheriff's Office first "slipped the surly bonds of earth" in the mid 1950's with a pair of fixed winged aircraft. Since then the unit has evolved into one of the premier law enforcement airborne units in America.
The unit currently has a Bell 407 helicopter, three Bell OH-58C helicopters, and a Cessna T206H Stationaire in its operational inventory. The 35 year old OH-58's were acquired through a military surplus program at a cost of $500 each and have logged over 18,000 flight hours since being put into service. Worth noting is the fact that the Sheriff's Office participates in two federal programs that allows the agency to purchase parts for the surplus helicopters, fuel, flight suits and other miscellaneous items directly from the military at tremendously reduced prices... sometimes pennies on the dollar.
The function of the Aviation Section is to provide aerial law enforcement support for incidents such as vehicle surveillance, foot pursuits, searches for criminal suspects, searches for missing, lost and/or endangered individuals, providing air cover during critical incidents with the ability to provide live video microwave downlink, photo flights for investigative purposes, pre and post disaster missions, damage assessments, power and blackout assessments, environmental missions and assessments, code enforcement aerial support, search and rescue, fire spotting and other fire support, public relations and educational details, aerial security for presidential and cabinet member visits, and homeland security missions.
The Sheriff’s Aviation Section also provides aerial support to a variety of governmental partners, including the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, Department of Environmental Protection, OC Fire Department to assist them with wildfire suppression strategies, Orange County Code Enforcement, the Orange County Emergency Operations Center, United States Secret Service, United States Transportation Security Administration, and all of the municipal police departments within Orange County.
The mission of the Aviation Section continues to evolve with new technology and through needs assessments based on increased threats. However, many of the costs associated with the operation are reduced by utilizing surplus government parts and equipment and by seeking federal grant opportunities.
In 2011, the Aviation Section placed a higher level of accountability on our aircrews to conduct proactive patrol missions based on intelligence driven anti-crime strategies of the agency. In addition, based on data provided by the Crime Analysis Unit, the Aviation Section changed the hours of the afternoon shift to an earlier report time to ensure we have redundant response and patrol capability via multiple flight ready aircraft during the peak hours of calls for service. Each of the three (3) aircrew shifts has been mandated to patrol specific crime target areas during specific windows of opportunity based on dynamic crime trend data. The results of this strategy, which is having airborne resources in the air during peak times, are reflected in the statistical increases noted.
The Aviation Section, during 2011, also conducted agency wide training to all Uniform Patrol Division personnel which has enhanced our working relationship with the first responders and has improved the Aviation Section’s success rate when responding to incidents. This training had the affect of providing the responding deputies’ an understanding of the aircrews’ capabilities thus improving their scene response, which we believe had a positive impact on our success, more specifically the FLIR apprehensions. As such, the resources of the Aviation Section stand mission ready to respond to any incident which threatens public safety in the tri-county region.
When the unit isn't providing support for Sheriff's Office activities it often is called to assist other Central Florida law enforcement agencies who do not have an aviation unit of their own.
The unit continuously looks for ways to acquire the latest technology without impacting the agency's overall budget. During the past four years the unit secured $775,000 in grants to purchase Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) camera systems, GPS moving maps, flight helmets, searchlights, and night vision goggles.
The Sheriff's Office takes the training of its personnel seriously and the Aviation Unit is no exception. The unit has three flight instructors and all of its pilots hold multiple ratings and are certified to fly rotary and fixed-winged aircraft. The unit recently acquired a new internet based computer system that trains and tests pilots on a regular basis throughout the year. The intensive training has paid of with an unprecedented safety record and the unit being presented with the first ever International Association of Chiefs of Police Aviation Safety Award.