An extra set of wings would mean the Sheriff's Office could be in the air all the time, even when one is down for maintenance.
A helicopter can fly for a long time if properly maintained.
That’s why Chief Pilot Brent Wineka of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Aviation Unit takes maintenance of Air-1 so seriously. But it’s also why a new helicopter might be on the department’s horizon.
The Sheriff’s Office bought the Bell 407 turbine-powered helicopter new in 2005 for about $2 million.
Think of it like a patrol car in the sky — during their shifts, officers take the helicopter out and fly around Sarasota County. They have a computer in the cockpit like a patrol car, and a radio so they hear what calls are going out. If there’s a disturbance, or a missing person, or a suspect on the run, they can respond to that part of the county and render aid.
Frequently, Wineka said, the helicopter is used to help locate missing people. In early April, a bicyclist was lost on the Carlton Preserve after riding about 45 miles and for more than four hours. The aviation unit found the bicyclist sitting in the shade of a power pole and directed ground-patrol units to him.
The helicopter was outfitted with about $600,000 worth of equipment after the Sheriff’s Office acquired it, which includes an infrared camera, tactical searchlight and moving map system, all of which come in handy when trying to find a person over the 725 square miles of Sarasota County.
Air-1 is the only law enforcement helicopter in Sarasota County, so the Sheriff’s Office is often called to assist local police agencies in searches, or the fire department in putting out large blazes that threaten people or property, or even the county government in conducting environmental studies.
In each of the past few years, the helicopter has topped 500 flight hours. In 2017, that amounted to 1,837 calls or assists.
“Helicopters will fly forever, but how often can you use it? How often is it down for repairs?” Sheriff Tom Knight told the County Commission last year.
The answer really depends. Helicopters go through engine overhauls periodically, after flying for so many hours, like an engine overhaul or an airframe overhaul after a few thousand hours of flight, or an inspection after 50 hours.
Sometimes unexpected issues come up, like when the check engine light comes on in your car.
For example, in 2016, the helicopter flew for a total of 555 hours. But for 55 days, it was down for maintenance — 48 of which were for unforeseen or unscheduled issues.
It’s those days that Air-1 is not available that spurred the Sheriff’s Office to consider expanding the fleet.
“We’re gonna have to talk about that in the future,” Knight said in 2017. “I know you’re not ready for that right now ... That is the only air unit this county has for any capacity. We’re OK with it … I just want you to start thinking about it, because it’s coming.”
A 2017 estimate for a new helicopter shows the county can expect to pay around $5 million. The aviation unit’s annual operational and personnel costs are just more than $1 million.
Once he has a second helicopter, Wineka said the aviation unit would be in the air for the same amount of hours. A long-term goal would be to add more personnel to the aviation unit to be able to use both helicopters simultaneously. But redundancy is the immediate goal to cover downtime.
“It boils down to having an aircraft available,” he said. “You can’t put a price tag on finding a missing kid out in the woods.”