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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Recycling Helicopters: From Military Service to Public Service

Ernie Stephens

With the obvious exception of Boeing’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, many military rotorcraft designs find their way into civilian service. The most common are the OH-58 Kiowa and the OH-6 Cayuse, which often make their way into the hangars of police departments operating start-up aviation units or existing helicopter operations working with tight budgets.

In the 1996, the Anne Arundel County Mayland Police Dept (AAPD) wanted to start a helicopter unit, but officials were not comfortable with the start-up costs of buying a new, $1-million helicopter and another $500,000 worth of law enforcement mission equipment, such as forward-looking infrared gear, searchlights and a suite of special radios. Their answer was to take advantage of a surplus aircraft purchase program offered by the federal government, which allowed them to buy six former Army OH-58s for $500.

Once the helicopters arrived, the AAPD picked the best two out of the six to load with the necessary equipment to meet the FAA regulations that the Army is not obligated to observe. Next, they installed basic police radios and a searchlight, painted them, and placed them in service above the county’s 512-sq-mi jurisdiction, which includes the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, the headquarters of the National Security Agency, and 243,000 residents. The remaining four aircraft were kept behind the hangar and cannibalized for parts as needed.

Around that same time, Howard County, Md. also wanted air support services. But like Anne Arundel County, its neighbor to the east, there was no money for a new helicopter. There also weren’t any surplus aircraft available for purchase at that time. So, the Howard County Police Dept entered into a joint operations agreement the AAPD that included sharing some of the costs for keeping the aging aircraft going, in exchange for several hours of patrol time over its 251,000-sq-mi jurisdiction; a partnership that was acknowledged by the placement of their police emblem next to AAPD’s.

By 2002, Anne Arundel County’s administrators were pleased with the results an airborne law enforcement platform provided, and had allocated money to add a brand new, fully-equipped, 2004 Bell 407 to the fleet. Howard County continued to operate the OH-58s until it took delivery of its own factory-fresh Bell 407 with top-of-the-line gear in 2008.

Approximately 1,000 mi south of Maryland, the Florida Dept of Forestry (FDOF) is flying a more uncommon war veteran. It operates a Bell Fire Snake, a civilian conversion of a retired AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter.

The FDOF’s Fire Snake traded its nose-mounted cannon, rocket racks and olive drab paint for a removable water delivery system and an attractive paint scheme. It now serves as a fast, forward scout that allows forestry managers to perform reconnaissance missions and, when carrying a belly tank, press a speedy attack against a fire.

But there’s also a bad side to using surplus helicopwters: their unpredictable nature, the same unpredictability that applies to a used automobile, a previously owned house or a secondhand lawn mower. There’s just no telling what will go wrong with a helicopter that has already seen a significant amount of service. Plus, parts for older aircraft can be difficult to find, and repairs can become very expensive. Too much of either can eventually make the penny-wise purchase of a retired military helicopter pound-foolish. After all, the military retired them for a reason.

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