Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 26 seconds.
In patrolling the skies over central Florida, Polk County Sheriff’s Office has a new tool at its disposal — the latest version of the Robinson R66 Police Helicopter.
Located between Orlando and Tampa, Polk County spans over 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers), contains over 500 lakes, and has a population of about 725,000. Known for citrus groves, historic landmarks such as Bok Tower, and Cypress Gardens (a botanical garden and theme park that later became Legoland), it’s also an emerging hub of innovation and technology. The differing environments within the region, combined with its rapid population growth, present various challenges for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office — challenges that its thriving aviation unit help it to overcome.
The unit has a fleet of three helicopters (two MD 500E patrol helicopters and the new R66), as well as a Cessna 182T Skylane fixed-wing aircraft. In terms of personnel, the unit has an aviation supervisor pilot, five other pilots, and two pilot trainees. Each pilot holds a commercial airplane and helicopter certificate with airplane and helicopter instrument ratings.
“We support a wide variety of missions, everything from car chases of violent felons, to assisting our deputies looking for loose livestock in rural sections of the county,” chief pilot Rob Gray told Vertical. “We are routinely asked to look for missing hunters, boaters, children, elderly wanderers, and people in mental crisis. The most common call is someone fleeing a crime scene either on foot or in a vehicle, and supporting our K-9 deputies during searches.”
The management of vehicle pursuits can involve several law enforcement agencies in the greater Orlando and Tampa Bay metropolitan areas.
In addition to providing airborne law enforcement resources for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the 13 municipalities located in Polk County, the aviation unit often assists Highlands County and Hardee County. In total, its service area exceeds 3,700 square miles (9,580 square kilometers), and it flies an average of 1,100 hours each year.
Choosing the R66
The new R66 at Polk County Sheriff’s Office has replaced a Bell OH-58 in the aviation unit’s fleet. In selecting its replacement, Gray said the unit was looking for a type that would be more economical to operate.
“We chose the R66 due to its ability to completely support our mission profile, which is primarily patrol work. The very competitive pricing made it an even easier choice,” he said. “We are not utilizing this aircraft for firefighting, SWAT inserts, hoists, external loads, or any other missions that would require a larger, more powerful aircraft — so the R66 made total sense to us. The fact that it’s known for its reliability and ability to go to overhaul without issues was also a big plus.”
Altitude performance is not important to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, but hot weather performance is. “Even with a two-man crew and a full load of fuel, the R66 has plenty of performance,” said Gray.
He also highlighted the R66’s ability to keep his crews cool in the humid, subtropical climate of central Florida. “The R66 is known to have a very efficient air conditioning system that, so far, has proven to be reliable,” he said. “We fly our MD500s virtually year-round with the doors off to keep the crews relatively cool, but I think the consensus is we will be leaving the doors on in the R66 because of the cool air the air conditioning provides.”
The R66 Police Helicopter is provided as a turnkey product by Robinson Helicopter Company, with a variety of features included in a fully integrated package.
“Everything is factory installed, providing the customer with a sole location for all law enforcement installations and reducing the time it takes to become fully operational,” Monica Campos, manager of law enforcement sales at Robinson, told Vertical.
“Our newest version of the R66 Police Helicopter is now available with state-of-the-art features such as a Wescam MX-10 EO/IR camera with an HD infrared sensor, Spectrolab SX-7 Starsun searchlight, and AeroComputers’ [UC-6000] moving map system, which works in conjunction with the MX-10, modernizing the instrument panel and adding touchscreen capabilities to the police helicopter.”
In the cockpit, Robinson offers the Garmin G500H GDU 1060 TXi touchscreen primary flight display/multifunction flight display system and autopilot. Two Technisonic A711L audio controllers paired with a Technisonic TDFM-9100 allow the pilot and tactical flight officer to monitor and communicate on different radios and frequencies simultaneously, allowing them to handle calls more efficiently.
“The synthetic vision option provides another level of situational awareness for the crew, especially at night,” said Campos. “These features provide the sophisticated features today’s law enforcement aviators require in an economical and reliable helicopter platform.”
The aircraft also comes with the True Blue TB17 lithium-ion battery, which offers substantial weight savings, improved starter performance and longer life. Polk County’s R66 has Robinson’s optional auxiliary fuel tank, which provides an additional 23 US gallons (87 liters). This gives the aircraft an additional hour of endurance.
For added safety when flying a low-level patrol flight, Robinson’s new impact-resistant windshield protects the crew from a bird strike — a particular concern in Polk County given Florida’s large bird population. The windshield provides protection at impact speeds up to 100 knots, said Campos.
The Eye in the Sky
The Wescam MX-10 is well-suited for low-altitude, tactical surveillance, and search-and-rescue (SAR) missions requiring low-weight installation flexibility. Weighing just 37 pounds (17 kilograms), the MX-10 is less than 14 inches (35 centimeters) tall and is engineered without a separate control electronics box or an external vibration isolator. It’s compatible with all existing MX-series command and control, moving map, and radar interfaces.
“We looked at different camera systems and came to the conclusion the Wescam MX-10 was the best choice for weight and performance capabilities,” said Campos. “The impressive image quality and stability of the MX-10 made it an easy choice as a law enforcement camera system. The MX-10 is small and light enough that integration into our nose mount was not an issue. In terms of center of gravity, there is a generous allowance for crew loading configurations.”
Lieutenant Paul Wright with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Unit told Vertical, “We have found with the Wescam MX-10 camera we can search better than anything else we have used before. Our previous camera system was good, but the MX-10 has brought an entirely new dimension of image quality and ability to reach out and see things. This camera is proving to be a game changer for us. We have only been operating it for a short time but so far our crews are incredibly impressed at just how good a camera the MX-10 is in all aspects of operation.”
The MX-10 system for Polk County has been configured with technologies that will enable the unit to see more, operate more easily, and analyze with confidence, said Campos. The unit’s system is configured with high definition infrared, EOW (wide), high definition electro-optical, narrow spotter scope, MX-GEO, and an RCS interface.
Inside the cockpit, the aircraft’s instruments are compatible for use with night vision goggles (NVGs). “Our unit has operated with NVGs for over 20 years, so we have a strong understanding of their use,” said Gray. “Our MD 500s are NVG-compatible and we are getting the R66 NVG-compatible with the help of Night Flight Concepts of Waco, Texas.”
To get Polk County Sheriff’s Office ready to incorporate the R66 into its fleet, all the aviation unit’s pilots have been attending the Robinson factory safety course. “Additionally, Robinson allowed the instructor of the safety course, Bob Muse, to come to Florida and provide flight training in our aircraft before putting it into service,” said Gray. “This was a great experience as Bob is well-known in the industry as a Robinson expert.”
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said having a robust aviation unit was “critical to our mission” of keeping citizens safe in the county.
“We are thrilled to add the Robinson R66 turbine helicopter to our aviation fleet,” he said. “Not only is this aircraft a great asset to law enforcement, it allows us to cost-effectively support and protect our citizens. . . . We’re always looking to save taxpayers’ dollars, and the great people at Robinson were able to help us make that happen.”