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Sheriff’s Office helicopter shines spotlight on criminals

On New Year’s Eve, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office helicopter enabled deputies to find a suspected killer hiding under the Greene Street Bridge along the Spokane River.

In January 2011, two boys, ages 7 and 9, went missing as they hiked with their family in Pine River Park. Deputies used Air 1 to find the two boys huddled together, so cold and tired they couldn’t even wave to the helicopter.

Last weekend, the Air 1 crew tracked a suspected car thief as he raced at speeds of more than 100 mph in north Spokane. Sheriff’s deputies avoided a high-speed chase on the ground while an infrared camera recorded from the air as the car crashed and flipped over.

The Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit was created in 2005, when the U.S. military donated a 1970 Bell OH-58 helicopter to the department. After about a year of outfitting it with tools such as the infrared camera and the 30 million-candlepower spotlight, painting it green and training officers, Air 1 began patrolling the skies at the beginning of 2007.

Sgt. Dave Ellis, Air Support Unit supervisor, said the helicopter operates on a total budget of about $92,000 a year. That number includes fuel, phone lines, hangar rental at Felts Field and maintenance. Ellis said that because the Sheriff’s Office received Air 1 from the military, it can purchase surplus parts at a discount or get them for free from the military.

Four agencies now supply tactical flight officers or funds to Air 1: Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Spokane Police Department, Coeur d’Alene Police Department and Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.

One way the department keeps spending low is by employing volunteer pilots. No personnel are assigned full time to Air 1.

Ellis said eight volunteer pilots are on call. Half are current or retired military pilots. Two are instructors at Inland Helicopters, one is a retired Los Angeles Police Department pilot and one is a Hollywood stunt pilot who has worked in several movies, including “Die Hard.”

“I can’t say enough of these guys,” Ellis said. Each of them must have a commercial pilot’s license and at least 1,500 hours of flying time.

Lt. Col. Rod Melzer has been flying Air 1 for a little more than two years. He flew Huey helicopters in the Air Force, as well as Russian-made Mi-17s when he was stationed in Afghanistan for a year.

Now he works full time with the Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base and keeps up his skills flying helicopters by volunteering with Air 1.

“It’s pretty rewarding,” he said.

Melzer finds Air 1-assisted car chases interesting.

When Air 1 gets on the scene of the chase, he said, everything slows down on the ground. Officers don’t have to aggressively pursue speeding cars, which reduces the danger to the community, especially if a suspect decides to drive the wrong way through traffic.

The helicopter’s infrared camera picks up heat signatures. From the air, a car appears to have light shining on the street from the heat of its undercarriage.

“You can always tell the car running from police because it’s way hotter (than the others),” Ellis said.

Through the camera, the helicopter crew can find people in the dark as well as cars. Ellis said if a suspect is fleeing on foot with a weapon and tries to throw it away, the camera can still find it from the residual body heat on the weapon.

During a flight, the pilot controls the helicopter while tactical flight officers operate surveillance equipment, including a searchlight, a public address system, and a regular daytime camera to film chases and rescues. There are live video feeds to help SWAT and other law enforcement teams on the ground see what is happening in real time.

Each person in Air 1 has night-vision goggles clipped to their flight helmets.

Ellis said Air 1 is deployed a couple of times a week. When the helicopter lands, the tactical flight officers post incident reports to their website to let the public know what they did in the air that night.

For Ellis, the tactical flight officers and the volunteers, their work in Air 1 is rewarding. Pinned to the bulletin board over Ellis’ desk in the hangar is a thank-you letter from the two boys Air 1 found near Pine River Park.

“She’s been a good ship for us,” Ellis said.