ELITE UNIT PATROLS SPACE COAST SKIES
By John M. Egan // June 9, 2013
Vast Mission For Brevard Sheriff's Aviation Unit
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – In today’s economy, the bottom line is a major factor for success. No matter if you’re a private business owner, a franchisee, a major corporation or a county law enforcement agency, budget constraints, cut backs and downsizing affects them all.
When it comes to law enforcement, and especially the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office’s Aviation Unit, maintaining those high standards safely and cost effectively is essential and is the duty of the aviation unit’s Chief Pilot John Coppola of Rockledge.
Coppola began his love for law enforcement in 1979 when he was sworn in as a Deputy Sheriff with the Brevard County Sheriff’ Office. During his early career, he served as a patrol deputy in numerous precincts and in special units.
In a short span of 10 years he rapidly rose through the ranks, from patrol deputy, deputy first class, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant.
Passion for flight
Among his many assignments he led the special operations unit, which included the aviation unit. It was there his passion for flight took off.
“I was intrigued with flying and especially helicopters,” said Coppola. “At the time we had one helicopter with only two seats. I would often ride along with the pilot and assist him as an observer, looking for other aircraft in the area for safety and directing the pilot-to-ground activities which were being conducted by the patrol deputies”
“I knew this was for me,” he said.”On my own and with my out-of-pocket expense, I started training with a ground instructor at a local aviation school. Later on, when I had an opportunity to get away for an hour or so from the office, I would jump in with one of our pilots who was a certified flight instructor. I built up my flight time and eventually I built up enough time and instructions to where I was ready for my check ride. In 1994, I became a licensed helicopter pilot. It is a fantastic job, I love law enforcement and to fly helicopters too, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Prior to 1996 the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office had one helicopter based in Titusville with just two seats and no infrared system.
“From 1996 on, the sheriff’s office obtained flyable surplus military helicopters from several military bases for $500 each,” said Coppola. “They were in terrific condition, with new engines and pretty much new everything, because the military maintains their aircraft very well. Our pilots went to those bases and flew them here.
“Later on we picked up three more, which were non-flyable for parts, including a helicopter which was given to us two years ago by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. We now have three extra aircraft for parts, new spare engines and military surplus rotor-heads, which were returned from Iraq still in their transport cases. This has saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance expenditures.”
Also acquired was a helicopter with a proud war history. Bell Helicopter OH-58-A served in Vietnam with the C troop of the 3/17 Air Calvary. On June 13, 1970, it was shot down by enemy fire. The helicopter was recovered and subsequently shipped to Bell Helicopter in Texas for repairs. It remained at a National Guard base until it was returned to service in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm. After its tour in Iraq, it was sent to Bell Helicopter in Texas.
In 1996 this helicopter was obtained by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office through DRMS, a Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service which provides military surplus to law enforcement, state and federal agencies. Now it serves as their training and sea rescue helicopter.
Equipped with pontoons for marsh and water landings, it also is outfitted with state of art medical rescue equipment. As a sea rescue helicopter, it is named Starfish — an acronym for the aviation unit called STAR — Sheriff Tactical Air Response. (And fish for its use for water rescues).
During this time the aviation unit relocated to the Merritt Island Airport. This provided a central location in the county and decreased their response time in the event of an emergency or police operations.
“Depending on the weather, we can respond to the southernmost point of the county from our hanger to the location within 15 minutes, and in less than 12 minutes to northern points.” Brevard County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit Pilot and Deputy Scott Harris.
“Depending on the weather, we can respond to the southernmost point of the county from our hanger to the location within 15 minutes, and in less than 12 minutes to northern points,” said Pilot and Deputy Scott Harris.
Harris is one of the four pilots with the aviation unit. He joins Chief Pilot John Coppola, Deputy Stephen Lyon and Corporal Chris Sands as the primary pilots.
Along with Tactical Flight Officers and Pilots Dave Altmant and Joseph Barrera and Tactical Flight Officers Deputies Dave McCormick and Ron Story, they are at the ready as are a fleet of four on line helicopters, including a water rescue helicopter, to respond to any emergency either on land or on the waterways of Brevard County.
“The aviation unit is just like any other business,” said Coppola. “You want to make sure it is operating properly and that your personnel are motivated and your equipment is well maintained. You watch your dollars and make sure you stay in budget.
“We maintain an extensive inventory of new parts, from 30,000-candlepower flood lights to rotor blades. One blade alone costs $90,000. Times two and that is $180,000,” said Coppola. “We have transmissions, bearings, gauges, headsets, skids and numerous other parts with a combined estimated value in the millions of dollars. These parts were acquired for a fraction of their original cost and in many cases just the cost of postage, through federal grants and forfeiture funds.”
Tactical Flight Officer Dave McCormick of Merritt Island recently retired from Brevard County Sheriff’s Office as Deputy Commander.
In his 30-year career he served in all aspects of the sheriff’s office from patrol, investigator, sergeant, lieutenant and deputy commander. After his retirement this past May, he became a member of the aviation unit as a volunteer Tactical Flight Officer.
“As a Tactical Flight Officer, I assist John Coppola and the other pilots in spotting, mapping, operating the cameras and sometimes they let me wipe the machine down,” McCormick said.
McCormick is very humble, but an intricate part of the unit’s safe flying while providing an extra set of eyes to the sky. Tactical flight officers alert the pilot to other aircraft in the area such as low flying private aircraft or other helicopters and other aviation hazzards, such as large birds.
They operate the camera and mapping systems as well as the F.L.I.R., unit ( Forward Looking Infrared) an imaging technology that senses infrared radiation.
Like all other tactical flight officers, McCormick is trained to take over the controls in the event of a pilot’s emergency. They are trained how to hover the craft and land it safely.
“The most remarkable part about this unit is the costs, or the lack of costs, ” said McCormick. “Aviation units are very expensive to run. This unit is run on a shoestring, but it is run very well. And it has won all sorts of awards from all across the country for effectiveness. In reference to our parts inventory, these aircraft parts are set up so that the cost per hour compared to other units is unbelievably low.
” John (Coppola) is affectionately called our scrounger,” said McCormick. “He is able to obtain parts from the military and other sources throughout the country and overseas bases. I believe we have approximately $36 thousand in one of these aircraft and the add-ons are the FLIR unit and cameras. Usually insurance on an aircraft like this is more than $100,000 a year, but since we do not have a lot of money in the aircraft, our insurance just requires liability and that is a remarkable savings.”
Tactical Flight Officer Ron Story of Melbourne became an aviation unit volunteer after a 31-year career as a manager with AT&T. With a mechanical background as a licensed ground instructor and fixed-wing pilot, he was introduced to John Coppola, who was looking for someone with his background.
“I met John around 1997,” said Story. “He was looking for someone like me and asked if I would like to volunteer. I was more than happy to.
“After a year or so John encouraged me to attend the Police Academy,” said Story. “After graduation in 1999 I was sworn in as reserve Deputy Sheriff. My duties are the same as McCormick’s, I am trained with the cameras, FLIR units, how to hover and land the helicopter. I also maintain ground equipment, 30K power generators in the event of a local power outage and to perform preventive maintenance on numerous ground support systems. What a great second career.”
Coppola said that nothing gets off the ground without the unit’s aviation mechanics, Keith Hamant and Mike Ryle.
“Keith Hamant has been with us for six years,” he said. “As a former U. S.Marine and a Harrier Jet mechanic, he was found right next door to us in Merritt Island as a mechanic on private fixed-wing aircraft. Now he is one of our invaluable helicopter mechanics. Mike Ryle is combined licensed commercial helicopter pilot and mechanic with more than 16-years experience on many private, and commercial helicopters. Ryle is certified in the use of the gyro stabilized night vision goggles and FLIR, just to name a few among his many certifications. He has a lot of experience and is one of our best.”
Not so silent
Many of us may remember the 1983 movie Blue Thunder about a futuristic helicopter with a whisper and almost a silent mode to avoid detection.
Although research is on going for a quieter rotor blade, until that research results in the whisper-type blades, the familiar sound of those rotor blades aggressively grasping the air to stay aloft will remain. That sound serves as a very important tool for law enforcement.
“We have had complaints about the loud noise of our helicopters,” said Coppola. “But noise is good because it wakes up the people in the neighborhood. When the police or deputies are in the area looking for someone often in the early hours of the morning you will be awakened by the sound of the helicopter and wonder what is going on.
“On several occasions, neighbors were alerted by the sound and saw the individual and called 911. As a result, we are able to surround the area and make an apprehension. In one incident, the suspect ran from a vehicle and entered a property through a large pet door,” said Coppola. “The resident was awakened by the sound of our helicopter and heard the suspect enter the rear of the property. The owner went out the front and called 911. Deputies responded and captured the suspect inside the property.”
Coppola said the job is rewarding.
“When we respond to an emergency and find the missing person, apprehend hold-up suspect, or save an individual from a capsized boat, the rewards are priceless,” he said. “Our success over the years is two-fold. Number one is the staff that you’re working with makes a tremendous difference in the success of any unit in the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Jack Parker and everyone on his staff from those in finance, to his immediate staff, are all part of our success. They have been absolutely amazing in support of our unit.
“Now they know exactly what to do and maintain a perimeter, lock down the area and keep everyone out so the only one in the area is the suspect. With this team effort, we have been very successful with apprehensions.” Chief Pilot John Coppola
“And the guys on the ground, the road supervisors, deputies, police offices are all working together with the air unit,” said Coppola. “Early on it was a little chaotic getting everyone coordinated from the air for a ground search of a suspect and especially in a wooded area at night. We would have 20 cops in the woods all being picked up by FLIR night vision, but where was the suspect? It was a learning curve we all had to learn to avoid this. Now they know exactly what to do and maintain a perimeter, lock down the area and keep everyone out so the only one in the area is the suspect. With this team effort, we have been very successful with apprehensions.”
The aviation unit’s success has not gone unnoticed.
In 2007, they were awarded third place in the international FLIR vision award at the annual ALEA’s ( Airborne Law Enforcement Association ) conference in Orlando. In 2009, the unit again received international recognition with a second-place award. And in April 2012, they were awarded third-place worldwide for their exceptional skills and teamwork with ground units from the Cocoa Police Department in the apprehension of a burglary suspect in a rural area of Cocoa.
” John’s ( Coppola) goal started 15 years ago to have a unit that would be able to maintain these crafts for 10 years,” said McCormick. “Well, he has already surpassed that, and it is set up to do it for another 20 years.”
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit is located at the Merritt Island Arport at 901 Airport Road on Merritt Island.
Coppola said any Vietnam veterans who may have served with troop C of 3/17 Air Calvary or knows someone who has, are welcomed to visit the proud helicopter that served them and share their experience with the pilots.
Call 321-455-1475 for information.