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Article, Photos & Video by Lynnette Burks

When I was a kid, my mom always had a ready supply of catchy “wisdoms” that fit every occasion, and even future occasions.  A few of my favorites were: “Make sure you wear clean underwear in case you need to go to the emergency room,” “That won’t last as long as a fart in a whirlwind,” and “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly is to the bone.” However, the one I still reflect upon to this day is “Watch your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves.”  This last wisdom is not meant to imply you need to be a cheapskate, but it does mean if you use your resources wisely, smart decisions will be rewarded in the long run.  In other words, always keep your eye on the big picture.

Recently, RPMN had the opportunity to visit Fairfax County (Virginia) Aviation Unit.  In every part of their operation, it is apparent they keep their eye on the bigger picture.  They watch their pennies, and the dollars are taking care of themselves.


The Fairfax County Aviation Unit was launched in 1972, following the gift of an Enstrom F28 from a local businessman, only to be terminated in 1975.  After some re-evaluation, the unit re-opened its doors in the early 1980s and has been serving the citizens of the Washington, DC metropolitan area and suburbs ever since.  They are currently staffed with a crew of 20 members that operate on a unique schedule.  A typical crew consists of one pilot and two tactical flight officers / paramedics. They work 12-hour shifts that rotate 2 on / 2 off, 3 on / 3 off.   Four weeks of dayshift are followed by four weeks of nightshift, rotating back and forth.  The unit currently flies two Bell 429’s, which are dually fitted for law enforcement and EMS operations.

The crew instantly stood out during our time together.  It consists of one Chief Pilot, five Pilots, 11 Tactical Flight Officers / Paramedics, one non-flying Commander, one DOM and one Maintenance Technician.  The versatility of the dual-rated TFO / Medics adds  greater service for the taxpayers.  Further, all members of the crew are proficiently trained in NVG, FLIR, aerial surveillance, and static line rescue in support of both police and fire rescue units.

The unit averages 2,200 missions per year, and 95% of these are in support of police units on the ground. In 2012, they transported 150 trauma patients, not including inter-facility transfers.  In addition, they serve a lead role in Project Life Saver, which is an opt-in program for families of Alzheimer and Autistic persons.  Members of this program are equipped with a banded radio transmitter that can be found with a direction finder.  When needed, the helicopter is used as a platform to locate the radio signal transmitted from the band.  One of their Project Life Saver success stories involved locating a ten-year-old boy, who was found in a lake stuck in chest deep water.   Without the unit’s quick response, the results could have been tragic.

Members of the unit place high emphasis on professionalism, teamwork, training and meticulous records.  Chief Pilot Paul Schaaf made it clear that each member in the unit serves an equally important role.  When hiring pilots, he said, “We look for someone with a subdued ego who finds personal success and enjoyment in team accomplishment.  Specifically, this job is about delivering the medics and patients to the hospital and putting the TFOs in position to search for and find our targets on the ground.  It is not about the pilot getting the glory.”

During our visit, I had the opportunity to fly jump seat on a robbery scene call where the unit was serving as backup to the police units on the ground.  Operating low-level, between runway flight paths at Dulles International Airport, it happened to be a night where air traffic was busy and obstacles were in abundance.  Their commitment to teamwork was evident as they communicated constantly with the ground units, another helicopter, and air traffic control, but most importantly with each other.  It was clear the main goal was to assist the units on the ground and it was a team responsibility, not a pilot responsibility.


Fairfax County PD Video


When asked what makes the Fairfax County Aviation Unit unique, Schaaf confirmed the dual role of the TFO / EMS Officer, but he also noted the specialization of roles between the Pilot and TFO.  He said, “We specialize as Pilots or TFO’s and never blur this line.”  Why is this so important?   Most of the missions flown are in direct response to incidents in progress.  In other words, they do very little patrol.  The unit incorporates an extremely disciplined start and run-up procedure.  They are expected to be starting the helicopter within one minute of receiving a priority request and to be airborne within 90 seconds.  With this type of response time, job roles and duties must be clearly defined.

When assisting ground unit patrols, it is certainly their goal to make a successful apprehension, and this is generally the outcome.  However, they do not define their success this way.  Success is not defined solely by what they find, it is also determined by what they don’t find.  Schaaf explained, “When a suspect runs into a 30-acre parcel of woods and the helicopter can determine in 1-2 minutes that the suspect is NOT in those woods, the savings in time and resources and the gain in ability to divert those resources elsewhere is significant.”  He further added, “The psychological aspect of having the airborne presence is yet another attribute of the helicopter that deters crime and encourages peaceful surrenders.”


In addition to versatility and value, SAFETY is the one word used to define their culture better than any other.  The unit is constantly looking for hazards that exist, and those they have yet to discover.  By doing so, they identify areas of risk they need to eliminate.  Ironically, flight training only represents 2% of their total operations.  The reason for this low percentage is that they incorporate all flying as active training.

You might be asking yourself, if the unit was truly interested in providing value to their citizens, then why did they choose a twin-engine helicopter?  After all, single-engine helicopter could be used for the job at a lower operating cost.  The answer is a single word – SAFETY.  The County Executive involved in this decision was a former Vietnam Vet who had a sense of responsibility about flying a singe-engine aircraft over a densely populated area. 

Several other factors were also considered when choosing a twin-engine helicopter, specifically the Bell 429.  Category A type take offs and landings have always been part of the Fairfax County risk management strategy.  While single-engine failure is a threat, their view is that an even larger threat exists with obstacles, wire strikes or loss of control. The Cat A certified aircraft can perform these take offs and landings with a much higher safety margin.

The Bell 429 is also capable of 100% RPM and ready for flight within 70 seconds from the moment the battery switch is turned on, which improves readiness and response times.  In addition, the Bell 429 met criteria that an aircraft capably carry a patient, crew and second pilot at the same time.  Finally, the ship allowed them to upgrade to IFR and there were no practical light-single options that met this criteria. 


Fairfax County Aviation Unit provides a tremendous service to their taxpayers.  One unit dedicated to serving the needs of law enforcement and EMS.  Their goals are met due to their investment in state-of-the-art equipment, training, safety, and versatility of the crew.  In a time of budget cuts and restraints, it is refreshing to see a government agency that is using a “safety first – budget second” approach when it comes to protecting the lives of its personnel and its taxpayers. 


Since the initial coverage of this story, Chief Pilot, Paul Schaaf has retired from Fairfax County Aviation Unit and has taken a new position as Vice President of Operations with Helicopter Association International.  RPMN wishes Paul much success in his new position.

Posted in: Company Profiles


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