Orange County Sheriff's Office Aviation Unit responded to 54 percent fewer calls

Helicopter fleet expected to resume full service next week

By Mike DeForest - Investigative Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - Helicopters and an airplane flown by the Orange County Sheriff's Office have embarked on less than half the number of missions it flew during the same period last year, newly obtained records show.

The reduced number of flights by the agency's aviation unit is a result of various maintenance issues -- some planned and some unexpected -- that have hobbled the aircraft fleet since last year, a News 6 investigation previously found.

Between January and May 2018, records show the Aviation Unit responded to 994 calls for service, a 54 percent decline from the 2,157 calls it accepted during the same five-month period in 2017.   

The sheriff's aircraft have assisted in 50 percent fewer arrests this year than the 280 suspected criminals they helped apprehend between January and May 2017, records show.

Only two of the sheriff's helicopters are currently available to fly.

A third helicopter known as "Chase 1" has been undergoing a major refurbishment in Louisiana since March 2017.

Sheriff's officials told News 6 they expect "Chase 1" to return to Orange County on June 26, months later than agency officials expected it to be back in service.

To minimize wear and tear on the two operational helicopters and preserve those aircraft for higher priority missions, the sheriff's office has been limiting the types of calls to which its aviation unit can respond, records show.

Those restricted 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.

"Chase 1" refurbishment delayed

The Orange County Sheriff's Office purchased a brand new, $4.2 million Bell 206L4 helicopter in August 2016 known as "Chase 3."

With four helicopters in its fleet at the time, the agency had more than enough aircraft to fully service the 1,000 square-mile county.

In March 2017, the sheriff's office sent "Chase 1" to Lafayette, Louisiana, for a much-needed overhaul.

"The aircraft was 21 years old. There comes a point where we have to do something with it to keep it a viable aircraft to use," said Orange County Sheriff's Captain Tony Minnis. "We could refurbish that aircraft for considerably less money than it costs us to purchase a new aircraft."

As part of the $831,000 refurbishment, the helicopter received numerous structural improvements and upgrades to the flight hardware.

The agency's contract with Avionics Solutions LLC did not specify when the refurbishment work would be complete, but sheriff's officials believed it would be flying again around March 2018.

"Realistically, we were looking at about a year to get the aircraft back," Minnis said.

About six months after mechanics began disassembling "Chase 1," one of the agency's three remaining helicopters was abruptly retired.

"Chase 4," a military surplus helicopter manufactured in the 1970s, was nearing the end of its lifespan when the flight crew discovered a crack on the underside of the aircraft.

Sheriff's officials determined it was not feasible to repair the aging chopper.

"It would have cost us a lot more to repair the aircraft than what it was actually worth," Minnis said.

With two operational helicopters remaining in the fleet, the sheriff's office began restricting the types of missions flight crews could fly.

In December 2017, the fleet size was further reduced to one when mechanics discovered engine damage in the agency's newest helicopter, "Chase 3".  The aircraft returned to service more than two months later.

Even with two helicopters flying again, the aviation unit has continued to limit flights to higher-priority missions such as searching for missing people, vehicle pursuit and tracking criminal suspects who pose an immediate threat to the public.

Those restrictions will remain in place until "Chase 1" returns from its refurbishment, which has now been underway for nearly 17 months.

"Chase 1" will return to service soon, agency says

In an email to News 6, Minnis said the helicopter will be brought back to Florida on June 26 even though there is still work to be completed.

He indicated the Federal Aviation Administration had not yet granted approval for certain equipment attached to the helicopter, specifically an antenna mount and a mounting bracket for the aircraft's public address system.

"With no date in sight, the decision was made to remove the offending parts and bring the helicopter back to Orange County, where it will be put into service without those parts," Minnis said. "Once the FAA approves the parts, (the refurbishment company) will bring the parts to our hangar and install them."

Minnis indicated the missing parts would not affect the ability to fly the helicopter.

"The FAA is committed to ensuring that all aircraft can operate safely," an FAA spokesperson told News 6.  "The agency asks for information and documentation of proposed aircraft modifications to be sure that they will be installed properly and will support safe operations of the aircraft."   

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