features Civil saviors: Flying with Volusia County Sheriff’s Office

In one of Central Florida’s largest counties, Volusia civilian sheriff’s pilots and paramedics watch over beaches, swamps and cities year-round in their fleet of Bell 407s.
Avatar By Dan Parsons | May 28, 2020

Estimated reading time 16 minutes, 35 seconds.

Each year, Daytona Beach Bike Week draws 100,000 bikers to the Fun Coast of Florida, where a handful of riders inevitably wipe out and suffer sometimes horrific injuries.

So began the festivities for one biker who took a turn too wide on March 11 and cut a scar into a grassy Volusia County roadside. The man was thrown from the bike, slashed open his left thigh and ate a face full of dirt. Not wearing a helmet, he was knocked unconscious.

A Volusia County Sheriff’s Office Bell 407 flies past the Daytona International Speedway in March. The race track is a major tourist draw for the central Florida county and a venue for the annual Bike Week. Mike Reyno Photo

Fortunately for the injured biker, a Volusia County Sheriff’s Office Bell 407 was airborne and directed to the scene. Police on the ground had stopped traffic along the two-lane road, which provided just enough room and clearance from roadside wires for pilot Dean Balmforth to land.

Flight paramedic John Oldham hopped from the left cockpit seat, and jogged up the road to where a ground-ambulance crew had stabilized the injured biker. Because he was unresponsive when paramedics arrived in the ambulance, the man was flagged as a trauma patient and the aviation unit was called in.

He was awake but not quite sensical when Oldham arrived and began gathering information from his earthbound colleagues. Together they load him onto a backboard and then a stretcher that is wheeled toward the helicopter, rotors still spinning.

Maintaining the fleet of three 407s is complicated by the proximity to saltwater, but chief pilot Greg Brooks says they only ever fly as far from shore as one would want to swim in, should anything happen. Mike Reyno Photo

The front left seat is removed from the cockpit and placed in an aft storage locker so the patient, strapped to an immobilizing backboard, can be loaded in. His feet rest nearly against the dash with his head in the cabin, where Oldham gets busy providing emergency medical care.

“The patient’s lower right leg is ‘crunchy’ with multiple fractures,” Oldham says. The patient does not appear to have been drinking. He’ll spend his bike week in the hospital.

Within 15 minutes, Balmforth has the helicopter and the injured biker at Halifax Health Medical Center. He is wheeled from the rooftop helipad into an elevator and down to the emergency department, where doctors and nurses swarm to triage his wounds.

Much of the flying done by the civilian pilots and paramedics is done at night over swampy, unpopulated areas where night vision goggles are a life-saving piece of equipment. Mike Reyno Photo

The successful medevac mission is a shining example of the service the Volusia Sheriff’s Office provides its residents 24 hours a day, year-round, with a staff of 10 and three Bell 407s.

It isn’t only the public that benefits from having an air ambulance service in Volusia County. In 2001, the aviation unit possibly saved the life of Lt. Tom Tatum, after a drunken motorcyclist hit Tatum while performing a traffic stop.

He pulled the vehicle over on the side of U.S. 1 near the Iron Horse Saloon, a popular Bike Week roadhouse. One biker in a passing pack of motorcycles edged too close to Tatum and clipped his leg, breaking it in four places.

A “patient” is transferred from the helicopter atop Halifax Health Medical Center. The Sheriff’s Office and the hospital have partnered in the past to purchase equipment for the fleet of Bell 407s. Mike Reyno Photo

“It was pretty painful,” he said. “They called for trauma alert and the aircraft came in, landed on U.S. 1, loaded me up and flew me to the hospital. It was a huge benefit for me, personally. For one, it’s a faster response to the hospital and you don’t have to ride in the ambulance, which is more bumps on the road.”

A critical need

Daytona is a shining band of development along the shore of this county of roughly 550,000 people. The 10-minute flight between the city and the DeLand Municipal Airport traverses a gulf of lightless, marshy wetland that spans the 1,300-square-mile county north to south.

“You have a population on the east side of the county and a population on the west side of the county, and in the middle is just a big swamp from the north end to the south end,” chief pilot Greg Brooks said. “We have a lot of remote areas that we have to search sometimes.”

The three Bell 407s owned by the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office share the sky near the Ponce do Leon Inlet Lighthouse. Chief pilot Greg Brooks said the outing was the only time in his more than 20 years with the program that all three were in the air together. Mike Reyno Photo

A while back, Brooks brought his 407 down to about four feet to offload flight paramedic Matt Brunelle into waist-high water in that swamp. A woman and two children had kayaked into the mangrove maze and became lost when the sun set. A rescue boat could not reach them in what is called Mosquito Lagoon, but the helicopter could. Using night vision goggles, Brooks located the lost trio and deposited Brunelle. Brooks orbited in the helicopter and kept them lit with his spotlight during the daring rescue. The only casualty was Brunelle’s radio, dropped and still lost in the swamp.

With three Bell 407s, the sheriff’s office manages to keep one aircraft on duty at all times and typically flies about 150 medical transports a year, about one every two or three days. The frequency ramps up during big events like Bike Week or the Daytona 500, held annually at Daytona International Speedway.

“What that helps us assure is we should have an aircraft available 24/7,” Brooks said. “As long as we have personnel to put on it, an aircraft should be available. It’s extremely rare that we do not have an aircraft available. . . . I can probably count on one hand over the last 25 years where that’s happened.”

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University also is in Volusia County, which further complicates the airspace and makes Daytona Beach International Airport the third most heavily trafficked airport in the nation.

Medical transport makes up about 15 percent of the missions these all-civilian crews fly, according to Capt. Erik Eagan, who has overseen the aviation unit from his office at the DeLand Municipal Airport for the past two-and-a-half years.

“There’s a critical need because we are such a large county,” Eagan said. “In order to get to that golden hour and get you to the hospital for emergency treatment, we really need this resource. There’s a huge benefit to having this resource also for law enforcement, being able to follow fleeing vehicles. . . . It’s just an awesome tool that we use.”

Eagan manages a staff of four full-time and one part-time pilot and four flight paramedics, which he prefers to call tactical flight officers because most of their time is spent operating the searchlight and FLIR sensor, as well as navigating and communicating with officers and emergency medical personnel on the ground.

One of the Volusia Sheriff’s Office Bell 407s cruising along past Daytona Beach apartment highrises. Mike Reyno Photo

Within a huge department of 900 employees — 465 of them sworn law enforcement officers — Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood has been a tireless advocate of the aviation unit, Eagan said. Although the aviation staff currently are all civilians, most have trained to fly law enforcement missions and the flight paramedics actually attend tactical flight officer training in Palm Beach County, Eagan said.

“Airborne law enforcement is a different animal, or different mission compared to regular aviation,” he said. “I think it’s a benefit to have sworn law enforcement; that’s the direction the sheriff wants to go because then we can actually transfer probable cause from the sky to the ground. They could see a reckless driver. Having civilian pilots and civilian staff, they can relay that information, but we cannot act upon it. . . . You can’t transfer that crime that you are witnessing to the ground.”

That would entail flight crew members attending a law enforcement training academy and obtaining either certification as an officer or auxiliary officer. Florida Highway Patrol has such a program that the Volusia aviation unit is considering sending pilots and paramedics through, he said.

The civilian pilots and paramedics and their uniformed counterparts, from left to right: Lt. Tom Tatum, flight paramedic John Oldham, pilot Dean Balmforth, pilot Kodey McKnight, chief pilot Greg Brooks, deputy Jordan McDaniel, maintenance supervisor Neil Ridout and Capt. Erik Eagan. Mike Reyno Photo

The Sheriff’s Office holds its own FAA part 135 certificate and is the only air medical service in the county. As such, its primary mission, though not the one it spends most time on, is medical transport and supersedes any other type of call, Brooks said.

“We don’t really have any air medical assets in this county right now,” Brooks said. “The closest is Orlando and Flagler, which is part time. They operate during the day and at nighttime they’re shut down. So we’ll do a lot of mutual aid with Flagler County.”

Though it is a second priority, about 90 percent of incoming calls are to support law enforcement operations on the ground, Brooks said. They also have a bucket for firefighting, but have not put it to use yet. Plans are to train for firefighting missions with Flagler County FireFlight.

Sometimes the Coast Guard calls on Volusia’s 407s to search inland bodies of water like Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida.

Much of Volusia County between the county seat of DeLand and Daytona Beach along the Atlantic coast is mangrove swamp. Mike Reyno Photo

“Their closest air asset comes out of Clearwater, so it takes them a while to get over here,” Brooks said. “We don’t go far offshore because we don’t have floats. . . . We’re a single-engine aircraft and we don’t have floats, so the running joke is we only go as far offshore as we’re willing to swim back to the land.”

One of the 407s is equipped with a mount for SWAT team members to rappel from the aircraft. The aviation unit also trains to drop officers in and pluck them from water and for aerial shooting, Brooks said.

“We’re trying to be a little more proactive with the SWAT Team and a little more specialized with what we do, just to be a little bit more useful for whatever they need us for,” Brooks said.

An ‘excellent aircraft’

The Sheriff’s Office has maintained aviation assets since the late 1970s beginning with Bell 206B JetRangers with law enforcement pilots only on duty. When a medical call came in, they would have ambulance-based medical personnel hop onboard, chief pilot Brooks told Vertical.

Most of the patients transported by the Sheriff’s Office helicopters are taken to Halifax Health Center, which has room for two helicopters on its rooftop helipads. Mike Reyno Photo

It eventually upgraded to L-model 206s and then to the four-bladed, single-engine 407. The current fleet of three 407s is the department’s second batch of that model aircraft, and they have served well for the past 25 years, Brooks said.

“The 407 is an excellent aircraft,” he said, admitting a bias toward Bell because most of his experience has been in the company’s aircraft. “They’re very forgiving aircraft. They’re very durable.”

A March 10 photo flight with Brooks, Balmforth and pilot Kodey McKnight each flying an aircraft was the first time any of them could remember all three helicopters in the air at the same time.

The underside of one of the Bell 407s shows the Spectrolab NightSun spotlight and L3Harris Wescam MX-10 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor. Mike Reyno Photo

McKnight flew in the Army as a UH-60 medevac pilot, and notched a combat tour in Iraq, in 2006-2007.  She was in the Army for 12 years and flew for the final five after having corrective eye surgery. Also along for the ride was Jordan McDaniel, a sworn Volusia Sheriff’s Office deputy training to fly with the unit.

Configured to fly at about 5,250 pounds (2,381 kilograms), the Bell 407 gives Volusia crews about 2.5 hours of flight time. The aviation unit is budgeted for about 2,000 to 2,200 hours per year but has been averaging less — around 1,200 hours — in recent years while their aircraft were being upgraded, Brooks said.

Two people typically sit in the front of the aircraft, with the flight paramedic in the left-hand position. The paramedic/tactical flight officer is in charge of navigation and operating the Spectrolab NightSun spotlight and L3Harris Wescam MX-10 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor.

Chief pilot Greg Brooks at the stick of a Bell 407. Mike Reyno Photo

“We want the pilots to just pay attention and fly,” flight paramedic Oldham said. “So I do most of the spotting and communication with the ground and towers.”

A one-man band

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Volusia County’s aviation unit is that the whole fleet is maintained by a single mechanic. Neil Ridout, a mountainous, jolly Brit and former U.S. Army AH-1 Cobra crew chief, has been director of maintenance for the aviation unit for eight years. He still is the single line of defense for these aircraft against the rigors of flying in a coastal Florida county.

“What he does compared to some of the other agencies in Central Florida, as a one-man band, is phenomenal,” Eagan said.

Maintenance supervisor Neil Ridout cares for the fleet by himself, usually working on one aircraft so the other two are ready for missions. Mike Reyno Photo

“I shy away from anything structural,” Ridout said. “We don’t have the tools. I don’t really have the experience or do it enough to get into it. . . . Anything else we’ll do. If we don’t have the tooling, Bell will assist us with the tooling.”

The county has just finished upgrading its steam-gauge 407s with new Garmin digital avionics systems, a process that took about three years, Ridout said. Having decided to upgrade its existing aircraft instead of buying new, the sheriff decided to invest several million dollars into the program.

“We were in a position to either trade the aircraft or modify the aircraft or live with them the way they are,” Ridout said. “We spent a couple million dollars putting law enforcement equipment in.”

Flight paramedic John Oldham cares for an injured motorcyclist whose Bike Week was spent in the hospital. Mike Reyno Photo

That included installation of Garmin 500H dual-screen electronic flight displays, the L3 Wescam MX-10 camera on two of the aircraft, a Churchill Navigation augmented reality system, Kestrel Systems target acquisition capability and multi-band 800 MHz police radios.

“We’ve managed to do all this while keeping our role up as an air ambulance when called upon,” Ridout said. “It’s been quite a challenge squeezing all that stuff into a helicopter that also has to be able to accept [patients].”

Having a fleet of three 407s allows Ridout to focus on one at a time and stagger the major maintenance groundings so at least two are operational for emergencies.

The sun sets on a day of patrolling with the Volusia Sheriff Office fleet of Bell 407s. Mike Reyno Photo

“The fact that we have three helicopters takes a lot of the challenge out,” he said. “We need 24/7 support, so by having a third helicopter, it allows me to focus on maintenance while I have two other aircraft out in the field operating.”

Ridout also leans heavily on Bell maintenance services based in Fort Lauderdale to keep the fleet flying every day of the year. Under an existing agreement with the manufacturer, Bell provides all spare parts on demand. All general maintenance and overhaul is done in-house, but Bell also will dispatch skilled mechanics to perform maintenance that Ridout can’t do. Volusia County’s pilots also help with some of the heavy lifting.

“We’re more of a team,” Ridout said. “I can call on pilots to help me get blades off. If I’m pulling an engine, the pilots will come down and help me. I have all the support I need, so it’s not as big of a job as it looks.”

The Volusia Sheriff’s Office fleet of three Bell 407s show off their colors over the turquoise water off Daytona Beach, Florida. Mike Reyno Photo

Volusia County also has a working agreement with Keystone Turbine Services in Pennsylvania to care for its Rolls-Royce 250-C47B turboshaft engines.

The unit has just finished the 5,000-hour inspection on one of its 407s. A second aircraft is nearing the same inspection, which entails an overhaul of the drivetrain from the rotor head down to the tail rotor gearbox. This will be done in-house but takes the aircraft out of service for about 90 days. The aircraft also undergo interim 60-month inspections between major overhauls, Ridout said.

“We’ll have both of those going on at the same time,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge because that will leave us with one helicopter for probably a couple of weeks.”

Even with that one helicopter, the Volusia Sheriff’s Office crews will be on call, ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

“Our paramedics are top-notch and they’ve saved [many lives] because they do emergency procedures . . . in flight,” Eagan said. “We’ve got the best of the best that fly with us, and they are literally saving lives. That’s the mission.”

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