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Orange County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section: Future Ready

By Jen Nevans

Published on: July 21, 2023
Estimated reading time 22 minutes, 18 seconds.

Faced with a growing population and heavy tourism traffic, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section has its work cut out for it.
The Bell 407 provides the speed and performance for officers to respond to calls for service across the county, covering 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) and 1.5 million residents. Mike Reyno Photo

With 75 million tourists flocking to Orlando, Florida, every year, it’s no surprise that the most visited destination in America is always buzzing with activity. And for the law enforcement agency that protects this region, that means crime truly doesn’t sleep.

But it hasn’t always been this way for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section. The section first began patrolling the skies in the mid 1950s — well before the population boom. Using a pair of fixed-wing aircraft, the unit spent its earlier years gleaning lessons as a young airborne law enforcement agency.

“There was no real organized training and there were no standards that we trained to. We were making it up as we went,” said Corporal pilot Scott Sampsel. “The technology and the training are the biggest things that have changed — the TFO [tactical flight officer] training primarily has certainly progressed. It’s leaps and bounds from what it was 20 years ago when I started.”

Sampsel recalled the section primarily flying surplus military helicopters at the time — retired Bell OH-58 aircraft from Fort Rucker, Alabama, still wrapped in its OD green when the unit flew them.

The Bell 407 is a favorite among pilots and tactical flight officers at Orange County. Mike Reyno Photo

“We had almost zero technology in these aircraft,” Sampsel said. “We didn’t have computers, moving maps or cameras. At that time, we had five or six helicopters and we had one camera between all of them.”

To navigate from one end of the county to the other, pilots were equipped with a pair of binoculars and a paper map book, flipping through pages as they patrolled the towns below them. But the streets they were patrolling were changing rapidly, and by the 2000s, Orange County’s population had grown so significantly, the aviation section had to evolve to keep up.

Today, Orange County’s aviation section operates a fleet of three Bell 407s, one Bell 206L4, and a Cessna T206H Stationair fixed-wing. The unit was recently approved for a fifth helicopter, which the team expects will help them increase their flight hours from 2,200 hours a year to 3,200 hours or more.  

A legend in law enforcement

The Bell 407 has been flying law enforcement missions for 26 years, with Orange County becoming the first law enforcement agency to take delivery of the type in 1997. And thanks to Louisiana-based Avionics Solutions, Chase 1, as it’s called, is still an integral part of crimefighting in Orange County.

The aircraft maintenance company was enlisted to refurbish the aircraft four years ago. Since then, the aviation unit also had Chase 4, a 2009 Bell 407, refurbished by Texas-based AeroBrigham in December 2022.

The aviation section has an extensive pool of part-time TFOs, which the unit recruits early to allow them to get accustomed to the section. TFOs will also have an opportunity to become sworn helicopter pilots if they wish. Mike Reyno Photo

“[AeroBrigham] was easy to work with and we have had no problems related to the refurbishment, upgrades, maintenance or anything,” said Bob Rogers, the aviation maintenance manager and one of four aviation maintenance engineers (AMEs) at Orange County.

The unit also completed the 5,000-hour inspection and overhaul and 60-month inspection on its Chase 2 407 helicopter. Orlando Aircraft Services was enlisted to carry out the avionics upgrade on Chase 2.

In an industry where “crime doesn’t sleep,” Rogers said his team is “constantly doing maintenance of one sort or another.” The unit conducts its own installs, sheet metal repairs, and component overhauls.

One of the challenges the AMEs face, Rogers said, is maintaining Orange County’s fleet of legacy aircraft — namely its aging 407s. But the model is praised within the unit as being a powerful machine for the missions that officers face everyday.

Through the aviation section’s refurbishment program, all aircraft have been equipped with searchlights from Trakka Systems. Mike Reyno Photo

With a cruising speed of 133 knots (246 kilometers per hour), range of 337 nautical miles (624 kilometers), and an endurance of four hours, Sampsel calls the 407 a “very capable aircraft.”

“The Bell 407 is probably my favorite,” Sampsel said. “As far as just a standard patrol mission with a camera and a searchlight on it, it’s fantastic.”

He said the aim of the refurbishment program was to standardize the cockpit across all its helicopters.

“No matter what ship we jump into, we’ve got the same equipment. It definitely makes our lives easier, just knowing intuitively where things are, especially if you’re flying at night with a heavy workload, or flying with goggles on,” Sampsel said.

Advanced crimefighting technology

Through the refurbishment program, all aircraft have been upgraded with the Garmin G500H system and the Garmin navigation radio system. All the helicopters have also been equipped with the Wescam MX-10 EO/IR imaging system from L3Harris, Macro-Blue tactical cockpit display, Technisonic TDFM 7000 / 9000 radios, and searchlights from Trakka Systems.

“Some of the technology that we’ve got now, it’s phenomenal. It certainly makes us much safer and makes my job that much easier flying the aircraft,” Sampsel said

From the pilots’ perspective, transitioning from the analog gauges to the Garmin G500H avionics system provides a higher level of situational awareness, “especially the synthetic vision aspect with traffic overlays,” said pilot Ron Folse, who has been with the agency for more than three decades, and with the aviation section for the last 16 years.

“It helps for a quicker reference in identifying other aircraft in the area,” Folse said. “In our flight envelope, there are several towers within our patrol area that certainly could be an obstructive hazard, so it helps with picking things out.”

In what has become a significant step forward since its days of using a paper map book to navigate the county, the unit has adopted the Shotover augmented reality system.

“With that overlay and the capabilities to mark different things, see different aerial maps and terrain maps, see distances and all kinds of tools that are right at your fingertips, that really helps with what we’re doing,” said Chris Willis, deputy sheriff and TFO who has been with the agency for four years, and the aviation section for two.

Chief TFO Jason Sams added that the other benefit of using the Shotover system is the company’s customer service.

“If I wanted to talk to our mobile dispatch system, they can make that happen. If I wanted to have a certain navigation format, they’re able to do that. It’s customizable once you get it installed,” Sams said. 

Operated by about 25 personnel, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section is the only aviation unit covering the entire county. Mike Reyno Photo

Orange County also utilizes Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) — what the crew calls an essential tool for a police department that patrols in a high-traffic airspace.

“We fly in a very crowded airspace environment in Orlando, one of the busiest airspaces in the country,” Sampsel said. “If we’re working a large critical incident down in the tourist corridor, there’s no denying the fact that we could have two or three tour helicopters, two or three news helicopters, maybe medical — we could have six to eight helicopters working in close proximity.”

Law enforcement above all else

The Orange County Aviation Section has also seen an evolution in its mission profile over the years. While the unit once carried out law enforcement and medevac operations, Orange County is now solely focused on policing.

“Because our calls for service are so high right now for the helicopter, we can’t focus on anything else and we can’t bring in any other missions,” Sams said. “We’re equipped to hunt for bad guys, look for missing people, respond to crime, patrol, and just do law enforcement missions.”

Operated by 25 personnel, the section is the only law enforcement aviation unit covering the entire county — with 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) and 1.5 million residents to serve.

“The Bell 407 works for us because our jurisdiction is actually so large that we need the speed of a 407 to transition from one side of the county to the other for calls for service,” Sams said.

As the agency’s command-and-control base, the aviation section has to work well with ground officers and the K-9 unit for missions to be successful. Mike Reyno Photo

And not only does the aviation section support all entities within the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, it also supports the Orlando Police Department as well — about 40% of its actual flight time, flying budget, and fuel maintenance went to supporting Orlando PD last year.

“Our flight crews are trained to be the quarterbacks of the call that they’re responding to,” Sams said. “Once we get on scene, we’re calling the shots, making audibles as we’re overhead to apprehend a bad guy in the most effective and safest manner for the people on the ground. That’s our number one goal.”

As the agency’s command-and-control base, the aviation section has to work well with the other units to ensure a successful mission.

“We’ll actually bring all the squads in on an annual basis and go over perimeter training with them, tell them things that work, things that don’t work,” Folse said.

The unit also carries out orientation flights for the agency’s deputies, providing new officers an opportunity to see the aviation unit’s perspective from the sky.

In an industry where crime doesn’t sleep, the aviation section’s four aviation maintenance engineers are constantly doing maintenance of one sort or another. Mike Reyno Photo

“They’re able to see what we can to do for them and the things that we can offer,” Willis said. “When they’re on the ground, they’ll have a better understanding.”

The best crimefighting section also relies on having the best officers on the team. To achieve this, the unit has spent a number of years enhancing its pilot recruitment strategies and TFO training.

A path to becoming future ready

“When I first came in, my goal was to be a pilot,” Sampsel said. “I came into the unit as an airplane pilot, and I was striving to become a helicopter pilot, but we didn’t have a clear-cut path for that early on.”

And there wasn’t a clear path to go from being a TFO to a pilot, either. But over the last several years, Sampsel said the unit has put an emphasis on its recruitment program and in-house training efforts. 

“We’ve finally gotten to a point where we understand the attrition, we understand the training,” he said.

The aviation unit has an extensive pool of part-time TFOs, which the unit recruits early to allow them to get accustomed to the section, and for the agency to evaluate how they perform. This puts them in a prime spot when a full-time TFO position comes up.

New prospective TFOs at Orange County start their training with a week-long, 40-hour ground school where they learn tactics and equipment before beginning their one-month flight training with a flight crew. After completing the month-long training program, the new TFO is signed off for solo patrol as a TFO.

New protective TFOs at Orange County start their training with a week-long, 40-hour ground school before beginning their one-month flight training with a flight crew. Mike Reyno Photo

“There are different scenarios that they have to accomplish by a certain time,” Willis described. “They’ll also have to have so many flight hours — both day and night — and certain things on a checklist that they have to progress through to show that they’re capable as far as having command presence in the aircraft.”

Over Sampsel’s 20-year tenure at Orange County, he’s witnessed the unit’s recruitment and training program grow, now creating a clear path for prospective candidates to become TFOs or sworn helicopter pilots.

“That’s something that I’ve always felt very strongly about,” Sampsel said. “I thought it was very important not only for the needs of the agency but for the needs of the individual to know that you’ve got somewhere you can go here.”

For Corporal Lauren Hernandez, her nine years of experience with the agency has equipped her well as a TFO. Just like many other officers in her position, Hernandez started as a patrol officer at Orange County before transitioning to the K-9 unit, where she served for five years. With K-9’s close interaction with the aviation section, Hernandez was introduced to the world of airborne law enforcement.

“Working with K-9, I absolutely loved finding bad guys and helping people on the ground with different types of calls, whether it be finding missing people or apprehending felony suspects,” Hernandez said. “I thought, what better way to further that than to be able to do it from the air?”

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section was the first law enforcement agency to take delivery of the Bell 407 in 1997. Mike Reyno Photo

About 4.5 years into her time at the K-9 unit, Hernandez began TFO training for the aviation section. From here, Hernandez and others like her will have an opportunity to become a sworn
helicopter pilot if they wish.

“After you have applied yourself as a TFO and you’ve mastered that trade, you then can start going to school to obtain your pilot’s license to eventually become a pilot here,” Hernandez said. “This unit is very good at progressing people and building and fostering the unit to make it better for the agency.”

Using certified flight instructors (CFIs), the unit is currently providing in-house and third-party training to some of its TFOs who have an interest in becoming sworn helicopter pilots — it’s a pilot recruitment strategy that has worked well for Orange County.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 33 years, and I have just as much enthusiasm coming to work today as I did as a brand-new deputy,” Folse said. “Every day is an adventure. We’re able to really provide quality service to the units that we support. It’s the best job in the agency.”

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