As of September 2012 the St. Louis County Police Department Helicopter Program continues to operate as a full-time helicopter operation providing patrol support to the entire St. Louis area to include incorporated areas as well as surrounding counties. The program is now titled the Metro Air Support Unit and is a joint operation with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department. The unit operates 3 MD-500E model helicopters (1985, 1987, 2009) and 3 OH-6A military surplus helicopters flown by the unit’s eight pilots.
The beginning of the Metro Air Support Unit came in the fall of 2003 when rising fuel and maintenance costs began to absorb most of the funding available for the St. Louis County Police Department Helicopter Program. It became clear available funding would not be enough to sustain patrol operations on a regular basis year round. The unit would be forced to operate on standby or as needed schedule.
The unit’s commander, Lieutenant Kurt Frisz, recognized this problem and met with other police officials to try to find adequate funding in order to sustain patrol operations on a regular basis. Lieutenant Frisz even traveled to other police agencies around the country to learn how they funded their helicopter operations and to explore the possibility of a joint operation with other local police departments.
After surveying other police departments around the country Lieutenant Frisz met with other local police departments in the St. Louis area in an effort to combine resources and start a joint helicopter operation.
At this time the St. Louis Metropolitan Police department was operating one military surplus OH-58 helicopter on a very limited budget. The helicopter was only available upon request and the department had only one pilot. Further, critical components to this helicopter and time life parts essential to flight were coming due for inspection, replacement, or overhaul. It was even mentioned by St. Louis Metropolitan Police commanders that when the helicopter came down for these repairs the program would be eliminated as it was too expensive to maintain.
Coincidentally at this same time the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department was in the early stages of forming their own helicopter unit but was not sure if the project would be feasible due to the high costs of purchasing a helicopter and maintaining it.
Lieutenant Frisz approached both of these departments and proposed creating a merged aviation unit with the three departments, with the goal of sharing the expensive costs but at the same time providing more flight coverage to the three agencies involved. In the spring of 2004 after contracts were completed and signed by each department the Metro Air Support Unit was created.
Since its creation the Metro Air Support Unit has operated out of the St. Louis County Police hangar at 18200 Edison, Chesterfield, MO 63005 at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport. The unit is comprised of personnel from each of the participating departments. The unit falls under the command of the St. Louis County Police Department Bureau of Patrol Support and has a St. Louis County Police Captain as its commanding officer. The unit has two police sergeants one from the St. Louis County Police Department as well as one from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. There are four police officer pilot’s positions from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, three from the St. Louis County Police Department, and one from the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department.
All of the aircraft maintenance with the exception of major overhauls of helicopter engines and parts is performed by two full time mechanics who are on staff as St. Louis County Police Department civilian employees.
The contracts signed by each of the three participating departments specify the agreements of each department to provide the personnel as listed above and the annual dollar amount to be contributed by each department towards operating expenses. The contracts state the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department are to contribute $150,000 annually and due to a lower call volume and usage of the helicopter the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department is to contribute $100,000 annually.
All of the money contributed by each department is money that is collected from asset forfeiture. Asset forfeiture is a term used to describe the confiscation of assets which are either the proceeds of crime or the instrumentalities of crime. No funding of the Metro Air Support Unit comes from any of the police departments actual budgets.
In recent years all of the Metro Air Support Unit’s major equipment purchases have been funded with federal grant money, most of which is provided through the Department of Homeland Security or U.A.S.I. (Urban Areas Security Initiative). The unit’s 2009 model MD-500E helicopter, FLIR (forward looking infra-red) system, and onboard moving maps systems are some examples of this equipment that has been purchased. The unit is also scheduled to receive a fourth MD-500E model helicopter upon its completion at the MDHI factory in November of 2012.
The unit currently provides patrol coverage with four two person flight crews to each of the three participating departments on a regular basis from 8AM-3AM with the emphasis being on the evening to night time hours. During these hours the call volume is higher and need for a helicopter greater. The unit pilots have no set flight path or areas they must patrol at certain times but do spread their patrol time equally when not on assignments over the three participating department’s areas. At anytime the helicopter operation is not being staffed there is a flight crew available on an on-call basis. The estimated time for arriving to a call after calling out a flight crew is approximately one hour.
The unit will routinely respond to assist any incorporated area within the coverage area with no cost to that department. Unit members currently monitor approximately thirty police radio channels simultaneously during flight in order to provide the best response to calls for police service as they happen. Any surrounding county to the participating department’s counties may also make a request for the helicopter to respond to their area for a call. This is also at no cost to these departments but the flight must be in the interests of preservation of life.
Unit members while flying still fly in the traditional format of a two person flight crew with one member of the crew acting as the pilot in command of the aircraft while the other acts as the TFO, tactical flight officer. The pilot in command is ultimately in charge of the aircraft and is responsible for the safety of the aircraft and its crew. The TFO is in charge of all the extra equipment loaded on the aircraft used specifically for police missions. This equipment includes the FLIR (forward looking infra-red system), the moving map GPS, the Night Sun (a 50,000,000 candle power spotlight), and all of the police radios. It is not possible for unit members to perform any flight or mission without great coordination in the cockpit. It is imperative both crew members communicate while flying and work together well.
Each member of the Metro Air Support Unit prior to being selected to fill a pilot’s position with the unit must first be a commissioned member of one of the three participating police departments. Each department individually dictates that candidates for the pilot’s position must complete a minimum of at least three years on patrol prior to applying for any available position. Candidates are selected by their specific departments to fill any opening presented by their department with the Metro Air Support Unit. Once unit members are selected they begin their training as tactical flight officers.
The tactical flight officer position typically requires at least six months of in the cockpit and on the job training to become proficient. Most of the equipment used by the TFO is very expensive and highly technical that takes a great deal of time to learn. In addition to becoming familiar with the equipment the TFO’s must be able to demonstrate they are proficient with the equipment while on actual police calls and during high stress situations.
Upon completing TFO training unit members may begin pilot training with one of the unit’s certified flight instructors (CFI). Student pilots must complete all the necessary training required by the Federal Aviation Administration to first obtain their private pilot’s license. This training typically takes one year.
After achieving their rating as a private pilot, unit members may begin working towards their commercial pilot’s rating which typically takes another year to complete. With a commercial pilot’s license unit members are required to build 500 hours of pilot in command time with other commercial pilots onboard the aircraft before finally being signed off as one of the unit’s Pilot’s In Command. As a Pilot in Command in the Metro Air Support Unit pilots are able to fly with non pilots, take passengers, and have shown proficiency at flying a diverse number of police missions.