ORLANDO, Fla. – Maintenance issues have grounded three of the Orange County Sheriff's Office's four helicopters over the past year, at times leaving a single chopper available to assist deputies throughout the 1,000-square-mile county, a News 6 investigation has found.
To minimize wear and tear on the two working helicopters currently in service, the Sheriff's Office has limited the types of calls to which its Aviation Unit can respond.
Since the flight limitations began in October 2017, records show the agency has turned down at least 90 calls for air support from both internal Sheriff's Office units and neighboring agencies, including the Orlando Police Department, Winter Garden Police Department and Orange County Fire Rescue.
The rejected calls include requests for help finding armed robbery and home burglary suspects, locating a young offender who had run away from the Juvenile Assessment Center, following a stolen car that was being tracked by its owner via GPS and assisting firefighters in locating brush fires, according to flight logs.
Under an agency protocol that has been in place for more than six months, sheriff's pilots are still required to fly on high-priority missions such as searching for missing people, vehicle pursuits and tracking criminal suspects who pose an immediate threat to the public.
However, most other requests for air support may be declined when only one or two helicopters are available, internal emails obtained by News 6 show. Those missions include foot pursuits, surveillance flights, fire rescue support, homeland security and disaster-related missions, as well as support for SWAT and K-9 operations.
Statistics provided by the Sheriff's Office suggest flight crews are receiving fewer requests for help while the limitations are in place.
In 2017, records show the Aviation Unit responded to 864 fewer calls for service than the previous year, a decline of 18 percent, while taking part in 38 percent fewer patrol missions.
During that same period flight crews assisted with 181 fewer arrests than in 2016, a 24 percent decline, records indicate.
A News 6 review of aircraft flight logs during the first three months of 2018 indicates the Aviation Unit continues to respond to a significantly lower volume of calls as the agency attempts to return its helicopter fleet to full status.
"A lot of these things happened that we could not have anticipated," Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Tony Minnis said of the recent maintenance issues. "We never were without aircraft in the county. Anything we deemed appropriate to fly on, we flew on."
Helicopters experience planned and unexpected maintenance issues
In 2016, the Orange County Sheriff's Office purchased a brand new, $4.2 million Bell 206L4 helicopter that flies under the call sign "Chase 3."
"There's no question we'll be able to use this aircraft in a number of ways," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said in a video posted on the agency's YouTube page showing off the new helicopter. "Some of our helicopters have been around since the 1970s, and so it's really time to replace them."
With the introduction of Chase 3, the agency had four working helicopters. The addition kept Orange County's helicopter fleet similar in size to most neighboring law enforcement agencies.
The Brevard County Sheriff's Office has five working helicopters, Marion and Osceola counties own four and the Volusia County Sheriff's Office has three, according to representatives with those agencies. The Seminole County Sheriff's Office, which covers an area with one-third of the land and population as Orange County, has two helicopters.
In addition to its four helicopters, the Orange County Sheriff's Office also owns a single-engine Cessna airplane that has remained in operation. However, sheriff's officials said that aircraft is less flexible to use than helicopters due to the higher altitude it must fly and the additional time required to launch it.
Beginning in March 2017, the Orange County's Sheriff's Office experienced a series of both planned and unexpected maintenance issues with its helicopters that, for a two-month period, left the agency with a single working chopper.
"Chase 1" undergoing refurbishment
The Bell 407 helicopter known as Chase 1 has been flying over Orange County since 1997, FAA records show.
The agency shipped the aging helicopter in March 2017 to Louisiana to undergo a thorough refurbishment.
"There comes a point where we have to do something with it to keep it a viable aircraft to use," said Minnis. "We could refurbish it for considerably less money than it costs us to purchase a new aircraft."
According to Minnis, the cost of the refurbishment is approximately $831,000. He said the contract did not specify how long the work would take to complete.
"Realistically we were looking at about a year to get the aircraft back," said Minnis, acknowledging that the refurbishment is taking longer than the agency expected. "Hopefully (it will be done) within the next few weeks."
(UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, the Orange County Sheriff's Office provided News 6 with a copy of the purchase order for the helicopter refurbishment through a public records request. The records confirm the $831,000 total cost. The agreement does not specify an estimated time of completion for the refurbishment project.)
Crack found on "Chase 4", flight limitations begin
The oldest working helicopter in the sheriff's fleet was Chase 4, a Bell OH-58C manufactured in 1970 that the agency acquired through the U.S. government's military surplus program.
"We knew that it was towards the end of its lifespan," said Minnis.
Although the agency had planned to retire Chase 4 soon, the aircraft was abruptly taken out of service long before its sister helicopter Chase 1 returned from refurbishment.
"During pre-flight inspection, I located a crack on the underside of the aircraft near the left rear skid mount," pilot Jason Sams wrote in a maintenance report on Sept. 30, 2017.
Chase 4 was immediately retired and now provides spare parts to neighboring law enforcement agencies that are still flying that model of Vietnam War-era helicopter.
"It would cost us a lot more to repair that aircraft than what the aircraft was actually worth," Minnis said.
The day after Chase 4 was taken out of service, Lt. Antorrio Wright sent an email to several Orange County Sheriff's Office employees and representatives with surrounding police agencies notifying them that the Aviation Unit was now limited to two mission-ready helicopters.
In his email, Wright noted that the agency's Cessna airplane did not have a functional camera system.
"Chase 4's grounded status forces the unit into a 'callout only' status," the email stated. "While in this status we respectfully ask that supervisors carefully screen calls for service and ensure their requests for Chase are as prudent as possible."
Wright said that the agency would continue to fly on serious felonies, vehicle pursuits, occupied stolen vehicles, missing persons and burglaries where there is an uncontaminated starting point for canines to track. In all other calls, flight crews would monitor the situation and respond when deemed necessary.
"The members of the Aviation Unit have been instructed to fly at your request, however they will need to speak with you personally for the information so they can document the abnormality in their flight logs," said Wright's email.
"Chase 3" experiences engine trouble
In November 2017, just 15 months after Chase 3 took its inaugural flight, pilot Fred Jakobson was starting up the helicopter to search for a missing person when he noticed a console light warning of a potentially catastrophic engine problem.
The aircraft's magnetic chip detector indicated metal particles in the helicopter's oil, a sign that there might be more significant engine damage.
Records show the agency's in-house maintenance team removed a small sliver of metal and sludge before returning the aircraft to service.
Two days later, while pilot Charles Cantrill was responding to a call near Conway Road and Hoffner Avenue, the chip light illuminated again.
Cantrill was close enough to the Aviation Unit's hangar located at Orlando International Airport that he returned there instead of making an emergency landing elsewhere, records show.
A field service technician with an engine repair company later removed the engine, replaced one of the metal bearings and did some other maintenance work before returning Chase 3 to service.
About one month later, as Cantrill was getting ready to take off in search of a stolen vehicle, the chip light flickered on again.
Following the third warning of a potential problem, the Sheriff's Office decided to ship the helicopter's engine to a repair facility in Canada for a more extensive inspection.
Mechanics there discovered a "badly worn" bearing in the engine, with two additional bearings also showing signs of damage, maintenance reports show.
"The helicopter was brand new," said Minnis. "We didn't anticipate an engine problem."
With Chase 3 grounded from Dec. 17 through March 1 for warranty-covered engine repairs, the Sheriff's Office was forced to rely on its only remaining helicopter.
During that two-and-a-half month period, Chase 2 received about 400 calls for service. Flight crews declined more than 60 of those calls because the situation did not meet the criteria of the maintenance matrix, flight logs indicate.
Flight limitations remain in place
Although Chase 3 is now back into service, the Sheriff's Office continues to limit flights of the two working helicopters as it awaits the return of Chase 1 from refurbishment.
The Aviation Unit, which has a $3.8 million operating budget, employs nine pilots, six tactical flight officers and four dedicated maintenance personnel, a 2014 agency annual report states.
"That doesn't mean we have nine pilots on at that particular moment," said Minnis, who indicated the staffing levels have not changed, despite the limited flights they are conducting. "We have to staff all 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Since October, flight crews have turned down at least 90 requests for service, records indicate, including cases involving robberies, burglaries, and car thefts.
In many of those cases, including several stolen vehicle reports, officers on the ground notified the Aviation Unit that possible suspects had run away and would likely be more difficult to find from the air.
In December 2017, Winter Garden police asked the Aviation Unit for help finding a man who had stolen a car from a pawnshop with a 4-year-old girl sitting in the backseat.
Officers found the abandoned car a few blocks away with the girl still safely inside.
Since the suspect was gone when police arrived, the Aviation Unit determined the situation "did not meet the criteria to launch," the flight log shows.
Police later arrested David Joseph Swatkowski for grand theft auto and kidnapping when he checked himself into a hospital.
In February, flight crews were asked to respond to the county's Juvenile Assessment Center to locate a juvenile offender who officials said took off running from the facility. Since the juvenile did not pose a threat to the community and since police canines could not locate a track, the flight crew turned down the call, records show.
Later that month, Orange County Fire Rescue asked the sheriff's flight crew to check out a fire in the woods behind an Avalon Park neighborhood, but since the call did not meet the criteria of the maintenance matrix, the helicopter did not respond.
The Ocoee Police Department contacted the Sheriff's Office in March seeking help with a strong armed-robbery case, flight logs show, but "Chase did not respond due to the limited flight status."
On March 28, the Apopka Police Department unsuccessfully requested air support for a stolen vehicle that a victim was tracking via cellphone. Since the police department did not have units on scene, it hoped an air crew could look for the vehicle.
On that same day, the Orlando Police Department requested air support for a burglary at an unknown location but the "flight was denied based on our limited flight status due to maintenance," the log states.
"I don't think bad guys are getting away," said Minnis in response to a News 6 question about whether criminals were benefiting from the limited air support. "We have enough resources in this county to allow us to use other means to apprehend criminals."
Sheriff's officials said they could request the assistance of neighboring law enforcement agencies' helicopters if needed, just as the Orange County Sheriff's Office has provided air support to those jurisdictions.
Minnis suggested there are many reasons why a particular call might not fit the protocol required to fly.
"It might be a call for service where the suspect is not known, or we have no suspect description. (The decision) could involve the time span between when we received the call and the actual commission of the crime," he said. "We want to make sure we're available in those instances where we're truly needed."
Six hours before News 6 published this report about the agency’s helicopter fleet, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office posted a video on its social media platforms highlighting the Aviation Unit and its in-house maintenance team.
“Mechanics are awesome. They’ve kept us in the air for so many years. Kept us accident free. And when we have problems, normally they’re able to fix it in a short time frame,” pilot Bill Keller said in the video.
"Orange County citizens are very privileged to have a top-notch aviation unit like we do," Capt. Carlos Torres, an agency spokesman, told News 6. "They should be proud of the Aviation Unit and the services these guys provide day in and day out."