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Airborne law enforcement sees a return to normal post-Covid

By Dan Parsons | August 2, 2021

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 6 seconds.

As a man dressed in tactical gear began rappelling from a helicopter fuselage mounted on a scissor lift hoisted high in the air with a dog attached to his hip, more than a dozen people gathered around to marvel and record the demonstration. 

Storm, the dog, dangled at the man’s side wearing goggles and a helmet-mounted camera as he descended from the mock aircraft. She hit the ground and showed incredible discipline as the throng pressed in. 

The APSCON 2021 show floor in New Orleans. Brent Bundy Photo

It was the second day of the Airborne Public Safety Association’s (APSA’s) annual conference in New Orleans, the first trade show Vertical has attended in person since Covid-19 shuttered large gatherings in early 2020. The crowd gathering to witness Storm’s descent from above the Airborne Tactical Training Solutions booth suggested the hopeful air most attendees and exhibitors voiced, that things in the rotorcraft industry could be getting back to normal.

APSCON, one expo of dozens cancelled by Covid, was initially scheduled for July 2020 in Houston. That show was to have been the association’s 50th and was the first it has missed since it began hosting conferences in 1970 as the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA).

Dan Schwarzbach, CEO of APSA, said during the opening ceremony that more than 1,100 people registered for the event, which he said was a demonstration of the steps taken to protect attendee safety.

Aside from the hit Covid delivered to the helicopter industry, law enforcement had a tumultuous 2020. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer in May sparked major protests across the U.S. During the civil unrests, calls to defund and reform police tactics threatened aviation budgets for police and other law enforcement departments nationwide. 

An MD530 belonging to the Oxford, Alabama, Police Department flies out of New Orleans on July 30. Brent Bundy Photo

That reaction to the events of 2020 did not seem evident at the New Orleans Convention Center, where hundreds of vendors and law enforcement officers perused 11 aircraft and more than 120 vendor booths. 

Rob Hamers, of flight helmet supplier Merit Apparel, said the show was well attended and that he met with several pilots from law enforcement agencies t hat deploy his products. Jim Huddock, owner of radio manufacturer Technisonic, said the same. 

“This isn’t a huge show, but it’s good to be back in a setting where I can just walk around and talk to a bunch of my customers in one place,” Huddock said. He demonstrated this by swinging an outstretched arm in a wide circle, pointing to half a dozen booths and labeling them “customer, customer, customer.” 

Industry giant Metro Aviation used the event to announce its “return to conventions,” and invited the Hillsborough County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office to display its new Airbus H125 at the Metro booth.

“Last year was pretty hard on the industry, but it really seems like things are getting back to normal,” Huddock said. 

In fact, several law enforcement officers told Vertical that while “defund the police” had proliferated in certain political circles, 2020’s widespread civil unrest had actually improved financial and political support for police aviation at the local and state levels. 

Jason Day, the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) program administrator at Texas Department of Public Safety, said aviation programs in the state had gotten a political leg up during 2020. 

The Hillsborough County, Florida, Sheriff’s Department’s new H125 flies off after being on display for several days in the New Orleans Convention Center. Brent Bundy Photo

“It’s actually been quite the opposite,” Day said when asked if support for police aviation in general had fallen during the record demonstrations. “Our legislature actually saw the benefit of what we are doing, particularly with UAS and have approved another helicopter, as well. Whenever they are in session and coming and going, we have aircraft in the air, and they recognize the safety benefit. That has really helped.” 

Unprecedented wildfire activity in the American West also has proven a boon, although perhaps an unwelcome one, to public safety aviation programs in the affected states. Companies that configure aircraft for firefighting have thrived and expanded. One such company is Helinet, which offers aircraft configuration services but also provides Part 133 and Part 137 operations in California. The company’s firefighting capabilities doubled in May 2021 with the addition of a second dedicated UH-60 Black Hawk configured to drop water on wildland fires. 

Attendees enter the exhibit hall at APSCON 2021 after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 29. Brent Bundy Photo

“Every year, we had more and more requests for our services with our Black Hawk,” said assistant chief pilot Alex Freidin. “By adding an additional UH-60, we are able to expand our offerings to a wider market. This aircraft has already allowed us to secure additional fire contracts in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Alaska, and with Cal Fire. We are excited to bring this new ship online and provide another step towards keeping Helinet’s customers and the public safe.”

Despite a hopeful atmosphere, Covid loomed over the event. All attendees were required, when registering, to sign a waiver acknowledging the ongoing threat of Covid-19 infection and absolving APSA of all responsibility for future illness. Outside, a large digital sign announced the City of New Orleans “strongly urged” everyone to wear a mask in crowded indoor settings. Still, few attendees of the conference chose to wear them in the exhibit hall. On Friday, July 30, Mayor LaToya Cantrell reinstituted New Orleans’ mask mandate.

Update: On Aug. 3, the Airborne Public Safety Association sent an email to APSCON 2021 attendees advising them that “at least one vaccinated exhibitor” had tested positive for Covid-19.

“We have been apprised that at least one previously-vaccinated exhibitor has tested positive for COVID following APSCON 2021,” APSA wrote. “Please take the precautions you feel are necessary to prevent further transmission of this virus, including possibly getting tested even if you have no symptoms.”

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