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By Ron Whitney

An invitation to visit with the Alabama Department of Public Safety (Alabama State Troopers) Aviation Unit and observe training in the field is not something you pass up.  This is a rare opportunity - one in which you get a first hand look at the unique capabilities and value of such a unit. Little did I know before exactly how capable these folks really are.

The Beginning

“Gentlemen, if I have made a mistake, I shall soon correct it,” said Alabama Governor Bibb “The Little Colonel” Graves, on January 10, 1936.  That was the day Governor Graves signed the Executive Order, which authorized the formation of the Alabama Highway Patrol. Beginning operations with a cadre of seventy-four officers, the troopers were charged with enforcing the law throughout Alabama’s 52,423 square miles, divided into sixty-seven counties.  Much has changed in 75 years.

One of the many changes that occurred over the years was the formation of the Aviation Unit.  In 1975, citing a growing need for airborne law enforcement, then Director Eldred C. Dothard authorized the Aviation Unit to begin operations.  Starting out with four surplus U.S. Army TH-13 Sioux training helicopters and one Cessna 182, the unit was charged with conducting traffic control, aerial surveillance and search operations.

Fast Forward

Today the Alabama State Troopers are a force nearly 1,400 strong, with around half of them being “boots on the ground” officers.  The Aviation Unit staff is currently eight State Trooper Pilots, one Tactical Flight Officer/Homeland Security Liaison, four aircraft mechanics and a unit secretary.  The fleet has grown to two designated Rescue Helicopters (a Bell 206L and Bell 407), seven OH-58 helicopters, three Cessna 182’s, a Piper Navaho and King Air 200. The unit flies approximately 3,500 flight hours per year in support of state, county and local law enforcement operations.

The unit’s mission has evolved as well.  On any given day the unit can be found conducting searches for missing citizens, manhunts for fugitives, marijuana eradication, surveillance flights, aerial photography of crime scenes, prisoner transport flights, tactical flight operations, long line insertions, rescue hoist operations and aerial firefighting.  The unit is also tasked with providing executive transportation, primarily the Governor and other elected officials. The unit, headquartered at Montgomery’s Dannelly Field, also has operational bases in Cullman and Fairhope.

From Search… to Search and Rescue

In March of 2008 the unit acquired its latest addition, a 2000 model Bell 407 with approximately 1,000 hours on the aircraft.  Purchased with a $3 million dollar U.S. Department of Justice grant, the 407 not only greatly reduced the unit’s response time, it nearly doubled its capability.  “This aircraft allows our troopers to arrive on scene earlier, remain on scene longer and provide needed versatility in emergency response,” said then Public Safety Director Col. J. Christopher Murphy. “This moves our capacity from ‘search’ to ‘search and rescue,’” he added.  With the added performance of the 407, the Aviation Unit expanded its capabilities to include long line rescues, multiple insertions and extractions, stretcher based evacuation, tactical operation insertions, vertical resupply and delivery of emergency equipment and aerial firefighting.

Montgomery

Upon our arrival at the Aviation Unit’s hangar and headquarters at Montgomery’s Dannelly Field, we were really uncertain as to what was on our agenda. I had spoken on the phone with the unit’s Chief Pilot Trooper Lee Hamilton a few days earlier. “We’re going to do some training with the Elmore County Sheriff’s Department, and you are welcome to come along and observe,” he said.  “We plan to be on site in Elmore County at 13:00 hrs,” Hamilton continued.  So, we planned accordingly and insured we had plenty of time to spare.  Elmore County, just north of Montgomery, is approximately a ten-minute flight in the Bell 407, a 45-minute trip by ground.   

The aviation facility was everything you would expect of a well-organized and well-managed flight operation.  Neat, orderly, and hangar full of obviously well maintained aircraft.  “You are free to take pictures of everything that has an Alabama State Seal on it,” Hamilton advised us. Enough said.  The unit, when able and available, conducts training and operations throughout the state, with nearly every law enforcement agency that submits a request. 

The one aircraft that stood out amongst the others in the hangar was the Bell 407.  Forget the fact that this aircraft was manufactured 11 years ago, this machine looked like it had just rolled off the showroom floor.  It was clear this team takes a great deal of pride in the manner in which they maintain their equipment.  This 407 was very nicely-equipped, full Chelton panel, NVG compliant, searchlights and FLIR, rescue hoist and quick disconnect Dart tactical benches.  As we arrived, the team was just finishing up the installation of the tactical benches and preflight. Interesting to note, everyone is involved in the preflight and aircraft preparation phases.  Very little chance anything is overlooked with this approach.

Elmore County

The training site was an abandoned farm.  Off the beaten path would be an understatement.  However, I soon learned that these training locations are carefully selected so they do not attract too many curious onlookers. This place fit the bill perfectly. Upon arrival I discovered that the Bell 407, crew and Rotorcraft Professional’s Dana Maxfield and Sarah Kritner had already landed and the aircraft was being prepared for the first segment of today’s training exercises and tactical insertion.

The Bell 407 is the perfect vehicle to get a small group into a small landing area.  Equipped with the Dart Tactical Benches on each side, the 407 can deliver four Special Operations types - two on each side.  We were allowed to get as close as we felt we could without interfering, a definitely unique vantage point.  Properly briefed, the Elmore County Insertion Team boarded the 407’s bench seats, secured their seatbelts, and off they went. 

The target of the insertion was an abandoned farmhouse adjacent to the landing zone.  The aircraft was to approach and land to a designated area then the insertion team was to conduct their assault.  Hamilton, today’s pilot in command had obviously conducted operations such as this many times before.  He made his approach over the tree line and delivered the team right on target.  After six or seven sorties the team had the operation down pat. 

Added Value

One aspect which has sometimes gone forgotten, or maybe overlooked, is the added capability this Aviation Unit has brought forward since the acquisition of the 407.  With the added power and increased gross weight limits, the unit can now conduct long line insertion and extraction of personnel and equipment.

The next segment of today’s training was to be a long line insertion, into a heavily wooded area, to extract a wounded Sheriff’s Deputy.  Again, the members of the Aviation Unit went about removing the bench kit, installing the long line on the cargo hook, and conducting an assortment of safety checks.  One trooper reached into the baggage compartment and pulled out a two-foot square red canvas bag, which he snap-ringed to his harness. 

Within a few short minutes they were ready to roll.  Hamilton brought the helicopter to a 100’ OGE hover and two members of the unit attached their harnesses to the hook at the end of the line.  Now, here is where training and experience truly make the difference.  Making a nice slow and steady climb out, Hamilton insured his “load” was safely clear of all obstacles. 

After a quick trip around the pattern the team was vertically inserted, in a densely wooded area, immediately adjacent to the simulated patient.  Hamilton repositioned the long line a safe distance away while the team went to work.  In what appeared to be a carefully rehearsed manner the team quickly assessed the patient, opened the red canvas bag, and proceeded to assemble a folding backboard and litter kit.  Amazing what they can manage to fit into those little bags.  In a remarkably short period of time they had the patient packaged and prepped for extraction.  Down came the 100’ line, the litter was secured and the team members hooked on for the ride out of this very confined space.  Again, in what appeared to be a very routine manner, the patient and team were extracted and repositioned a safe distance away.

All in a Day’s Work

As I mentioned earlier, the opportunity to observe a unit such as this is a very rare one.  Never had I imagined how diversified, well-trained and truly capable this small group of pilots and team members is.  It was clear that they have made training a high priority.  The value of that training can be measured in results, which this group has demonstrated dozens of times since putting this new aircraft in service.  Not the types to “tell the tales,” these folks would much prefer for their actions to speak for them.  I can only imagine the impact they would have if they could secure funding for a few more Bell 407s. 

Editor’s note:  As we go to press we learned that the Alabama Department of Public Safety’s Aviation Unit was in the midst of a large-scale fire fighting operation in Gulf Shores.  As of last count, they have delivered over 59,000 gallons of water in an effort to extinguish the forest fire.  Another excellent example of why our leaders should continue to support and improve the capabilities of units just like this one.

 

Posted in: Company Profiles

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