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Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office: Fighting crime from above

By Brent Bundy

Published on: February 5, 2024
Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 20 seconds.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section is well-positioned to continue to provide necessary airborne law enforcement services for the foreseeable future.

For over 50 years, residents of Hillsborough County in Florida have been afforded the protection of an airborne law enforcement asset.

Since the 1970s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has utilized both helicopters and airplanes to provide aerial services to the fourth most populated county in the Sunshine State.

HCSO operates four Airbus H125 single-engine helicopters. Each aircraft has been outfitted in nearly identical LE configuration by Metro Aviation to assist pilots and tactical flight officers with familiarity between ships. Brent Bundy Photo

To this day, the sheriff’s office operates a modern fleet outfitted with the most advanced equipment available to ensure its place on the cutting edge of policing from above.

The city of Tampa sits on the Gulf Coast of Florida, about halfway between the Keys and the Georgia state line. With a population closing in on 400,000, it is the largest city in the region. While the Tampa Police Department handles calls, both on the ground and in the air, the majority of the county lies outside the city limits but still requires the same services. Enter the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and its aviation section.

A vast region to serve

There are nearly 900 square miles (2,300 square kilometers) of unincorporated lands that fall under the jurisdiction of HCSO. The terrain ranges from open water and coastlines to rural swamplands, all connected by bridges, roadways, and multiple communities.

With a deputy-to-citizen ratio of only 1.4 per 1,000, this sizable area can prove challenging for ground units responding to calls for service in a timely manner. To tackle these hindrances and provide the best assistance to its residents, HCSO looks to the skies.

Utilizing a Collins Aerospace Goodrich hoist, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is prepared for search-and-rescue operations across the varied terrain of western Florida. Brent Bundy Photo

Beginning in the early 1970s, HCSO recognized the benefits that an airborne division would provide to the county. Similar to many fledgling police aviation units at the time, the first helicopter used was the venerable Schweizer 269A. The value of the aircraft was quickly realized and the department eventually operated three of the two-seat, piston-driven models.

The success of the Schweizer was its demise as patrol units requested its use more often across the nearly 1,300 sq. mi (3,300 sq. km) of the county, and its response was hindered by the limited performance that the four-cylinder Lycoming O-380 engine could provide. In addition, more capabilities, including medical transports, were needed and the diminutive helicopter could not fulfill the demands.

In 1982, HCSO stepped up with a turbine-powered Bell 206 JetRanger, its first true multi-mission aircraft as it was used for emergency medical services (EMS) transport in addition to law enforcement operations. The JetRanger was also equipped with the FLIR Mark-II infrared camera system, making Hillsborough one of the first police agencies in the U.S. to adopt this nascent technology.

During this same period, HCSO also delved into fixed-wing activities. At various times, the unit flew a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, a Piper Aztec twin, and a Cessna 206. However, by the mid-1990s, emphasis was placed on helicopters and the airplanes were phased out. This was also when military surplus Bell OH-58 Kiowas, close relatives to the previously operated 206 JetRangers, made their way into the hangar.

Nighttime patrol over downtown Tampa, Florida, in the Airbus H125. Brent Bundy Photo

The airplane hiatus ended in 2004 when the transport and high-altitude surveillance missions mandated more than the helicopters offered. This return of the fixed-wing coincided with the modernization of onboard crime-fighting equipment, as well as an upgrade to the existing rotor-wing fleet.

By 2015, HCSO had taken delivery of its fourth Airbus AS350 B2, powered by Turbomeca Arriel 1D1 turboshaft engines. Each example was outfitted with then-state-of-the-art FLIR 230-HD thermal imagers, Spectrolab SX-5 searchlights, AeroComputers moving maps, night vision goggle (NVG)-compatible cockpits by Aero Dynamix, and external cargo hooks. The relationship with Airbus has continued to this day in the modern fleet operated by HCSO.

Current fleet and equipment

Impressed with the performance of the AS350 B2 AStars they had flown for nearly two decades, when the time came for fleet replacement and upgrade, the aviation section once again turned to Airbus to fulfill its airborne policing needs.

Deliveries of the first of three H125s began in 2018 and continued for two consecutive years. Completing the helicopter line is a fourth H125, delivered in mid-2023 after it was outfitted and completed by Metro Aviation. For ease of transition between aircraft and consistency, each airframe is configured nearly identically.

Thermal imaging is handled by FLIR’s Star SAFIRE 380-HDc unit with output to 17-inch Macro-Blue monitors. On the first three aircraft, those same screens currently display digital mapping provided by the latest AeroComputers UC-6000 with video overlay, while the newest H125 incorporates the TrakkaMaps TM-100 mission mapping and video management system.

Communications are through L3Harris Unity XG-100M tri-band radios, useful for the variety of agencies the unit works with, including the U.S. Coast Guard. TrakkaBeam A800s illuminate ground targets with 22,500 lumens, while a LoJack tracking system directs them to stolen vehicles. Rounding out the electronics package is the BMS microwave downlink with a DLC50 control panel.

Each HCSO Airbus H125 is equipped with FLIR SAFIRE 380-HDc imaging systems, TrakkaBeam A800 searchlights, TrakkaMaps TM- 100 mapping, L3 Harris tri-band radios, and additional LE gear. Brent Bundy Photo

For search-and-rescue missions, the unit has a single Goodrich 500-pound (272-kilogram) hoist that can be moved between aircraft, although a second is on order. External load carrying of personnel for airborne use of force or SWAT insertion is performed via a Tyler Special Operations Platform (TSOP).

The continuity between helicopters is carried over to the section’s sole airplane, a 2016 Cessna 208 Caravan. Apart from the hoist and the external platform, all equipment is either installed or can be transferred over to the airplane when needed.

The Hillsborough team

Great aircraft equipped with the most modern equipment means nothing if you don’t have the right personnel putting it all to use. Making sure the fleet is properly staffed falls to Sgt. Jason Doyle. The South Hillsborough native was bitten young by the flying bug when he was five years old and a sheriff’s helicopter dropped in for a visit at his school.

“That started my love affair with aviation,” Doyle recalled. He never gave up on that dream, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in aviation management from the Florida Institute of Technology. Doyle finished school with numerous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ratings, which would assist him in his future position.

“As part of the program with HCSO, you have to work in a street patrol function first,” he said. “I joined in 2007 and then successfully tested for the aviation section in 2013, assisted by my background in flying and flight instruction.”

Within five years, Doyle was promoted to chief pilot, which was later modified to the title of flight sergeant. As the top-ranking deputy in the section, Doyle is tasked with a plethora of duties, in addition to his flying assignments. Budgets, training, scheduling, aircraft acquisitions, you name it, Doyle is involved.

“There are a lot of responsibilities to this position and I enjoy tackling them, but I really like flying,” he said. “The nice thing about this job is we don’t do the same thing over and over and that keeps things interesting.”

In addition to himself, there is one flying corporal, eight line pilots, and two dedicated tactical flight officers (TFO).

Since 1997, the HCSO Aviation Section helicopters and airplanes have flown out of the David Gee Aviation Complex at Tampa Executive Airport. Brent Bundy Photo

“Previously, we only had the pilot positions, but we recognized a gap in staffing,” Doyle said. “As a testament to the support we receive from our command and Sheriff Chad Chronister, we requested the two TFO slots and they were granted. Sherriff Chronister is the key reason for the backing we enjoy. It’s definitely made a difference in our performance as a unit. Our success is directly related to the support we get from the top on down.”

Maj. David Arthur, Homeland Security Division Commander, agrees with the managerial support available.

“Our priority for aviation is to fight crime and our folks have been extremely effective in this aspect with 24/7 availability for directed, proactive enforcement. They afford us more bang for the buck,” Arthur said. “I’ve been in law enforcement for over 21 years and can tell you that we are very fortunate to have Sgt. Doyle as our unit boss. He brings a wealth of information, experience, and passion to the position. Surrounding yourself with the right people is always a winning formula.”

Another invaluable resource that’s key to the success of the HCSO flight operations is the person responsible for keeping the fleet airworthy — director of maintenance Brian Parsons.

Parsons, along with two additional mechanics, can take on most of the work needed, apart from complete overhauls.

“We are allowed to go into the aircraft as far as Airbus and Safran will allow us,” Parsons explained. “We pretty much do it all. We have sheet metal capabilities, small repairs, and even some major repairs, with guidance from Airbus.”

Additionally, Parsons is an inspection authorized (IA) mechanic, which aids in the inspection completions. The team has even been trained in minor repairs of composite materials, such as the cowlings that may experience punctures or hangar rash.

All pilots and tactical flight officers are trained in night vision goggle operations, which adds to the multiple mission sets the HCSO can assist with. Mike Reyno Photo

When asked about the challenges the maintenance team faces with the five aircraft they are tasked with working on, Parsons said, “We’re always working. With the flight schedules we have, flying nearly 2,000 hours a year, there’s always something to do.”

Working 10-hour days, the majority of the daily requirements are covered on duty, with both mechanics on call-out status for the weekends. Parsons is also complimentary of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) he works with.

“We get pretty good support from Airbus, Safran, and the other companies. Things were tough through Covid but with some patience, everything went well. We had good communications with them and that made a big difference,” Parsons said. “Our goal is to keep these aircraft flying. The aviation section is here to support patrol and our job is to support the pilots.”

Prepared for the mission

In 1997, as operations were ramping up for the aviation section, the unit moved into its current facility located on the field at Tampa Executive Airport (KVDF). With space for the entire fleet, including the Cessna Caravan, the building was constructed with both environmental concerns and future expansion in mind.

“We’re in Florida, so it’s 800 degrees outside, but this location was built to allow us, as mechanics, to work in comfort,” Parsons said. “This adds to our safety and productivity.”

In 2018, the headquarters was renamed to the David Gee Aviation Complex in honor of the former sheriff and proponent of airborne policing who spent 42 years with HCSO. Sheriff Gee is credited with making the aviation section what it is today — a modern, aerial law enforcement unit that is looked to as a leader in its field.

While many police aviation units have limited mission profiles, the HCSO aviation section takes pride in its ability to excel in a variety of disciplines.

“We have so many different mission sets that we’re constantly flying something different,” Doyle stated. “We train and execute missions, including directed patrol, airborne shooting, fast-roping, longline operations, Bambi Bucket-based firefighting, search-and-rescue, and more. There’s pretty much no task that we can’t handle.”

During a single day of training, Vertical Valor recently joined HCSO to witness live-fire aerial sniper work, hoist insertion and retrieval, along with both day and nighttime patrol assignments. The cohesiveness seen between the pilots and special operators like SWAT was clear and demonstrative of the stringent training regimen they regularly participate in.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team regularly trains with the aviation section using the Airbus H125. Brent Bundy Photo

In addition to the repertoire of helicopter roles, the Cessna Caravan carries out both high-altitude surveillance missions for specialty units and transport functions for department executive staff, detectives, and prisoners. Not only is this transportation service cost-effective, but it is also an immense timesaver for investigative units.

In the 50 years that aircraft have been utilized by HCSO, time and again they have proven their worth. In 2022, 276 catches were attributed to the unit. For the first four months of 2023, the aircraft have already been credited with 140 catches. They have been used to locate nine missing people, and assisted with five fires utilizing the Bambi Bucket.

During the devasting Hurricane Ian, which struck the West Coast of Florida in fall 2022, while the Tampa area was largely spared, HCSO helicopters assisted surrounding counties with SAR, damage assessments, and critical transportation of personnel and supplies.

“The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is blessed with a sheriff and executive staff who believe in aviation as a force multiplier,” Arthur said. That sentiment is not lost on the public either. “The community loves it. We occasionally bring our helicopters to community events and give our citizens a first-hand account of how their hard-earned tax dollars are being appropriated and implemented to make their neighborhoods a safer place.”

With continued support from the populace and unwavering backing from management, coupled with a core group of aviators outfitted with the latest in airborne law enforcement equipment, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section is well-positioned to continue to provide necessary services for the foreseeable future.

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