ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – The Orange County's Sheriff's Office continues to limit flights of its three helicopters and turn down calls for air support due to maintenance-related issues, a News 6 investigation reveals.
When one or more of the law enforcement agency's helicopters is grounded for maintenance work, OCSO reduces the number of missions flown by its other helicopters to minimize wear and tear on the fleet.
The agency's Aviation Section will always attempt to respond to high-priority calls like missing persons, vehicle pursuits and searches for criminals posing an immediate danger to the public, according to records obtained by News 6.
However, many other requests for air support may be declined when only one or two helicopters are available, records 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.
According to OCSO, the agency has recently been unable to get aircraft parts in a timely manner from Bell, one of the world's leading helicopter manufacturers.
"We are working diligently to have the Orange County Sheriff's Office's fleet return to service in order to protect and serve the citizens of Orlando," a Bell spokesperson told News 6.
Last year, a News 6 investigation revealed that a series of planned and unexpected maintenance issues had prompted OCSO's Aviation Section to decline calls for help.
Eighteen months later, the agency was still limiting flights as a result of maintenance-related matters, newly released records show.
Since January 2017, the Aviation Section has turned down more than 130 calls for service due to "maintenance issues", "maintenance restrictions" or "in an effort to maintain the limited flyable hours on the air frame as requested by the Maintenance Director," according to helicopter flight logs reviewed by News 6.
It is unknown how many additional times OCSO deputies or outside agencies did not bother requesting a helicopter knowing the call would likely be denied under the maintenance matrix protocol.
"While we have had our challenges, we continue to provide aviation services as needed to the Orange County Sheriff's Office and other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies," said the commander of OCSO's Aviation Section, Capt. Anthony Minnis.
In addition to its current fleet of three helicopters, OCSO also owns a single-engine Cessna airplane. 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.
The number of missions flown by OCSO's Aviation Section has been reduced by nearly half in recent years, records obtained by News 6 show, even though the overall number of calls for service to the Sheriff's Office has grown slightly over that period.
In 2016, when OCSO operated four helicopters, the Aviation Section responded to more than 6,200 calls.
That number dropped to fewer than 4,500 calls in 2017, in part because the agency retired one of its aging helicopters and took another helicopter out of service for a major refurbishment.
The Aviation Section responded to about 3,200 calls last year.
This year, from January through September, the section flew fewer than 2,700 missions, flight logs indicate.
Requests for air support turned down
Late one evening in March, Javier Atencio received an alert on his phone notifying him of security camera activity at his Bithlo auto sales business, Texas Motors.
When he viewed online video from the surveillance cameras, Atencio saw two men rummaging through the store, possibly looking for keys to the vehicles and scooters sold there.
"Please send the police right now," Atencio told a 911 dispatcher.
The two men were still inside the business when an Orange County sheriff's deputy drove up, according to an incident report, but they soon walked out the back door, jumped a fence and began running.
"There's some deputies inside. There's some deputies outside looking. There's a K-9 dog tracking," the 911 dispatcher later told Atencio.
Meanwhile, the sheriff's helicopters remained parked inside the agency's hangar at Orlando Executive Airport about 13 miles west of the burglary scene.
Records obtained by News 6 confirm that deputies on the ground requested air support to help find the burglars.
But according to the helicopter flight log, the call was turned down "due to maintenance".
Instead, the Aviation Section indicated it would monitor the situation from the ground.
So OCSO's K-9 team contacted the Seminole County Sheriff's Office seeking assistance from one of that agency's two helicopters.
The Seminole County sheriff's helicopter was dispatched to the burglary scene approximately 19 minutes after OCSO's Aviation Section was requested to help and about 36 minutes after Atencio called 911, records show.
When it arrived from Sanford, Seminole County's helicopter hovered over East Orange County for about an hour.
But the burglars were never found.
"It's a very bad situation," said Atencio, who did not discover any items of significant value missing from his store. "(The sheriff) is supposed to have all of the equipment ready to protect the business, to protect the citizens."
Over the past year, OCSO's Aviation Section has turned down dozens of other calls, according to the flight logs:
- A caller heard four gunshots near Vanguard Street and saw a vehicle speeding away. Deputies later found bullet casings in the street. "(A deputy) believed the orientation of the casings indicated some of the shots went into a wooded area across the street and he was concerned they would not be able to find victims." The Aviation Section suggested deputies could contact Seminole or Osceola counties for aviation support.
- Orlando police requested OCSO's helicopter to follow a vehicle with a stolen license plate traveling on the 408 Expressway. After OCSO's Aviation Section turned down the call due to limited flight status, OPD officers attempted to stop the vehicle but it fled on the turnpike.
- A helicopter was requested to search for a subject wanted for felony narcotics charges. "The suspect was known and could be heard in the brush."
- Following a residential burglary near Semoran Boulevard and Hoffner Avenue, deputies requested a helicopter to check a wooded area with homeless camps.
- A patient ran away from Central Florida Behavioral Hospital so a helicopter was asked to respond. "The subject was taking his meds," the log states.
- Orlando police sought OCSO's helicopter to help find a man who had fled from officers and ran through a business near Orange Avenue and Virginia Drive.
- Deputies requested a helicopter to help find a missing suicidal person who had been last seen more than 90 minutes earlier and may have left the area in a vehicle.
"Chase 1" helicopter grounded for months; Sheriff's Office blames parts delay
In March 2017, OCSO helicopter known internally as "Chase 1" was shipped off to Louisiana to undergo a thorough refurbishment.
The agency spent $831,000 to upgrade the 22-year-old aircraft to keep it viable for use, according to the agency.
During the 15 months that "Chase 1" was unavailable, the Sheriff's Office limited flights of its other helicopters, records show.
When "Chase 1" returned to service in June 2018, the other two helicopters were occasionally grounded for brief periods lasting days or weeks to undergo maintenance procedures, some of which was mandated by the federal government or the aircraft manufacturer.
After flying nearly every day for eight months, records show "Chase 1" was taken out of service again in February 2019 for what the Sheriff's Office described as a scheduled component overhaul.
"Chase 1" would remain out of commission for the next eight months, News 6 has learned, once again limiting the fleet's availability to assist citizens and fellow deputies.
"The parts necessary for the overhaul were not delivered in a timely manner," Minnis said, explaining the lengthy downtime for maintenance. "These are time-life requirements. They are dealt with as their factory- and government-imposed lifespans expire."
According to OCSO, helicopter manufacturer Bell delayed delivery of 15 major aircraft parts including a mast, tail rotor output shaft and pitch change horn.
"The current delays were a direct result of Bell Helicopter's inability to furnish necessary parts in a timely manner," said Minnis. "We have had to make repeated queries to Bell, which finally resulted in us obtaining parts sooner than Bell originally projected."
Some of those parts were originally not expected to arrive from Bell until March 2020, Minnis said.
"Bell is constantly working with our suppliers, manufacturing plants and customers in an effort to anticipate both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance," said Blakely Thress, Bell's senior global communications strategist.
OCSO spent nearly $175,000 on parts for the latest overhaul of "Chase 1", according to Minnis.
He indicated the recent maintenance work on that helicopter had been anticipated since at least 2017, prior to John Mina being elected as sheriff.
"Chase 1" returned to service Oct. 31.
The agency has expressed concern its other two helicopters could be impacted by maintenance delays.
"It's quite possible we will have similar issues," said Minnis. "Due to the increase in flight time this year (of the other helicopters), we have two anticipated engine overhauls and hope that Bell and its associated suppliers will correct their supply issues when those are due."
Minnis said the agency anticipated having two aircraft in service during those expected and required maintenance periods.
Sheriffs agencies in Osceola, Marion and Volusia counties have not experienced similar problems obtaining helicopter parts from Bell, according to representatives from those agencies.
"We have had no issues with Bell. In fact, we've received top-notch service and next-day delivery of parts," said a spokesperson for the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.
The Seminole County Sheriff's Office does not fly Bell helicopters. The Brevard County Sheriff's Office obtains most of its helicopter parts through a military surplus program.
Emergency flight training scaled back during maintenance periods
Besides turning down calls for service from citizens and deputies, the maintenance-related flight restrictions have limited OCSO's ability to provide training to some members of the Aviation Section.
Whenever an agency helicopter is launched, the pilot flying the aircraft is typically accompanied by another deputy known as tactical flight officer, or TFO.
TFOs, who are not required to be licensed pilots, may operate the helicopter's cameras, thermal imaging equipment, maps or other gear while assisting fellow law enforcement officers on the ground.
In 2010, OCSO helicopter pilot Craig Heber suffered a fatal heart attack while off duty. He was reportedly scheduled to fly the following day.
Following Heber's death, former Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings endorsed emergency training for TFOs to teach them how to land the helicopter should the pilot become incapacitated during flight by issues such as a medical condition, bird strike, laser blindness or gunfire.
"All of the TFOs are trained to fly the helicopter in an emergency situation," states the Orange County Sheriff's Office website.
But News 6 has learned that only half of the agency's 14 TFOs have received full emergency flight training.
Last year four OCSO helicopter pilots sent a memo to Minnis seeking resumption of emergency flight training for TFOs, which they assumed had been discontinued due to the maintenance-related flight restrictions.
"The inability of a crew member to effectively take control of the aircraft in the event of pilot incapacitation would without a doubt be catastrophic for the crew and those on the ground," they wrote in the memo obtained by News 6.
The Sheriff's Office confirms that the fleet restrictions have limited the agency's ability to conduct emergency flight training for TFOs.
"(Emergency flight) training requires the section to dedicate an aircraft for approximately 30 hours of flight training, so returning to this program on a full-time basis is not feasible at this time," Minnis told News 6. "The Section has allowed our flight instructors to provide the training when they are on calls to TFOs who require the training. So we are providing the training on a reduced basis."
Although not mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, most Central Florida sheriff's agencies offer similar emergency training to its TFOs, representatives of those agencies tell News 6.