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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Law Enforcement: To Helicopter or Not Helicopter

Ernie Stephens

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO I ACCEPTED an invitation to see some of the latest and greatest advancements in ultralights, powered parachutes, and even gyroplanes. Collectively, I’ll call them "sport-recreational aircraft," the kind anyone can buy in kit form for less than $50,000.

Even though those kinds of aircraft have been on the market for decades, and are already popular among people who want to experience the joy of flying without having to get a license or spend six figures on an aircraft, those weren’t the consumers being targeted. The makers of those small kits were trying to sell their wares to the law enforcement community as patrol and surveillance platforms. The primary sales pitch usually included the line, "It’s better than a helicopter because..."

There was a time I used to laugh at the idea of a police officer flying around in what amounts to an airborne go-cart, but not anymore. It looks as if I can no longer blow it off quite as easily. Instead, I’m scratching my chin and looking at the whole thing with a raised eyebrow. Let’s take the gyroplane.

The FAA defines a gyroplane as "a rotorcraft whose rotors are not engine-driven except for initial starting, but are made to rotate by action of the air when the rotorcraft is moving; and whose means of propulsion, consisting usually of conventional propellers, is independent of the rotor system."

The sales pitch for why a police chief should buy a gyroplane instead of a helicopter was simple: "It can do a lot of the same stuff for a fraction of the cost," which appeals to the very core of every high-ranking official I’ve ever met. Let’s face it: Nobody likes the sticker price of a real helicopter.

The gyroplane I saw on display was a basic two-seater. Its dry weight was 900 lb, and it had a maximum gross takeoff weight of 1,500 lb. Its service ceiling was listed as 10,000 ft, and the Vne was said to be about 85 kt.

The kit price for that particular model was about $40,000. When equipped with a small forward-looking infrared and color video system already being used in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a gyroplane could give officers an airborne platform for an initial cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not millions of dollars — less than a helicopter. In addition to the huge difference in purchase price, the direct hourly operating cost can be as little as $50, and most of that is for 23 gal of premium, unleaded gasoline.

The ultralight dealers made the same arguments for their aircraft and promised better range and lower costs.

So, do sport-recreational aircraft outfitted with a little bit of police gear make for a better police platform than a helicopter? That depends on how much money an agency has to spend, and therein lies a potential land mine.

Granted, it was years ago, but I heard about a dealer getting face time with a high-ranking local government official and almost convincing him to buy two gyroplanes instead of two new helicopters. The only thing the official saw was something that looked like a helicopter, and a lot of change back from his dollar. What he didn’t know was that the lighter craft wouldn’t carry much, wasn’t very versatile, and didn’t perform well in anything less than almost perfect VFR conditions. Meanwhile, the vocal objections of his licensed helicopter pilots, who were expecting a single-engine turbine, were nearly dismissed as the foot-stomping of spoiled children who wanted big red balloons, not little pink ones.

It isn’t just the sport-recreational aircraft that are trying to move in on the public service helicopter’s territory.

A blimp spent several days parked in a 5,000-ft hover above Washington a couple of years ago to demonstrate its capabilities to local and federal law enforcement administrators. The builders claimed their platform was more cost- and operationally effective than a helicopter, burning less fuel and seeing more. One thing for sure: I couldn’t deny the psychological value of seeing that beast quietly sitting up there and not knowing if its crew was watching me or one of a million other people.

Then there are UAVs. The same kind of camera-equipped drones being used by the military are already flying law enforcement missions. The Homeland Security Dept. already employs them to safeguard seaports and other areas of interest. In fact, $70,000 will get you a nice one with forward-looking infrared, vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, and the ability to operate in winds up to 17 kt.

I’m not saying police helicopter days are numbered. One look at the assembly lines at the leading manufacturers proves that. I would suggest, however, there are different ideas on how to put eyes in the skies. Ultralights, gyroplanes, blimps, and UAVs probably won’t replace helicopters anytime soon, but something a little different might be parked next to your AStar sooner than you think. It might even be a good thing.

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