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Helicopter crashes were 'blessing in disguise' as Omaha police work to fix air unit flaws

Helicopter crashes were 'blessing in disguise' as Omaha police work to fix air unit flaws

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Last year was rock bottom for the Omaha Police Department’s air support unit.

A helicopter crash in April, ruining one of the department’s three available helicopters. A second crash in August, totaling another chopper. No flights at all for 39 days, and only 454 hours in the air all year — about half the normal amount of use.

On top of that, an outside review of Omaha’s air unit suggested a need for experienced leadership. And police officials recently acknowledged that the department’s pilots lacked enough consistent training.

The rough 2019 forced the city to spend $2.7 million for a replacement helicopter, and it has prompted changes in how the department runs its air unit. Among other moves, the city hired former Nebraska State Patrol Capt. Frank Peck as the unit’s new chief pilot and reassigned former commanders and pilots.

Pilots now will be required to attend yearly training at flight schools, and the department is restarting a tactical flight officer program in an effort to stay safe and increase flight time.

“(The crashes were) a blessing in disguise,” said Deputy Police Chief Kerry Neumann, who oversees the police services bureau and the air support unit. “We see our areas that we’ve missed. We have taken huge steps to address them.”

Those steps are important, partly because city taxpayers may spend $2.1 million this year in salaries, benefits and expenses to operate the program — and that doesn’t include buying any helicopters. And it’s also because Omaha police and outside experts think an effective air unit gives law enforcement a tactical advantage in fighting crime. Having eyes in the sky means police can pursue suspects with less risk, enhance officer safety by providing vital information and help rescue stranded or missing people.

In recent years, for example, Omaha’s helicopter — known as Able-1 — tracked a car after a traffic stop went wrong and the driver dragged a police officer. The helicopter flew low to churn up the waters of the Elkhorn River to search for a 4-year-old boy’s body. And it regularly helps avert serious injuries and costly lawsuits against the City of Omaha when suspects flee — safely following from the air instead of having cruisers race through the streets.

“I believe that people can probably see an aircraft and I think it can deter crime,” Peck said. “Maybe it’ll make somebody make a better decision. Who knows how many people stop or don’t even get involved in those types of activities because that aircraft potentially is there?”

One problem: That aircraft may not be overhead often enough.

The number of hours Omaha police helicopters spent in the air last year was unusually low, thanks to the two crashes. But even before then, flight hours had dropped substantially over the past two decades.

Hours spent in the sky have fallen from 2,054 in 2000 to 935 in 2018 — the last year the unit was at full strength with three available helicopters. That’s a drop from about 5½ hours per day to 2½ hours per day.

A World-Herald analysis of the past 20 years of the air support unit’s statistics also showed declines in the total activity and the number of times the unit assisted other agencies.

Activity includes officer-initiated requests, radio calls via 911 dispatchers and other assignments, which could count several different scenarios ranging from scheduled maintenance, parade coverage or a planned SWAT operation. While assignments increased 29% from 2000 to 2018, officer-initiated requests decreased 19%, and radio calls decreased 67%.

In 2000, the unit helped out other agencies 390 times; a year later, it happened 505 times. In 2018, the number was 117.

And each year, at least 76 and as many as 205 vehicle and foot pursuits have involved an Omaha police helicopter.

Neumann said a number of factors could have caused the drop of flight hours, citing management changes, staffing, weather and maintenance. He said flight hours in the 900 range were deemed acceptable in the past seven years. But he also said he hopes that yearly flight hours will rise to 1,200 or so by 2021.

“We are committed to flying when the situation calls for it, if it’s safe to do so,” he said. “But we can improve on those flight hours. … I know we can do better than that.”

Studies have shown that having a helicopter in the air can deter crime, said Daniel Schwarzbach, president of the Airborne Public Safety Association. But a department’s budget determines whether a helicopter goes on patrol regularly or just responds to calls as needed, he said, noting that the cost of helicopter parts and fuel have increased in recent years.

“If a police department’s budget is cut, it directly impacts the flight hours,” he said.

The total budget for the air support unit, including payroll costs, has increased from $792,000 in 2002 to $2,139,000 this year. Adjusted for inflation, that represents an 85% increase. Over two decades, the unit has also added two pilot positions — one of which now includes Peck, who is paid $115,086.

Neumann said the air support unit’s budget is one of the department’s largest, outside of new cruiser purchases. He explained that all costs are increasing, but he doesn’t think the fuel budget limited the number of flight hours.

“I think our fuel budget was adequate throughout all those years,” he said.

Schwarzbach looked at the department’s spending and budgets in the past two decades and said they fell in line with the normal costs of running a helicopter unit.

“Neither (is) excessive in the helicopter world,” said Schwarzbach, who spent 30 years as a pilot in the Houston Police Department. “I’d say OPD cost per flight hour over this period of time is in the ballpark.”

Neumann said that before the unit was down to one helicopter, pilots would work 12-hour shifts and try to do two flights per shift, depending on weather, maintenance or staffing. The unit doesn’t operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but pilots plan to fly at peak crime times, based on data. Neumann declined to say how many hours per week pilots are on duty but said they can be on call for emergency situations, too.

The department hopes to deploy the unit’s second helicopter by June 1 — a used 2012 Bell 407 GX. The $2.7 million helicopter is bigger and more powerful than the current one. It can carry seven people and perform larger rescue missions, something the unit’s previous smaller Bell 206 helicopters couldn’t do.

Neumann and Peck defended the purchase because of the rescue capabilities the new helicopter will have.

“You kind of want to be able to respond to the worst case imaginable, and I’d rather be in a position to know that we can do it and support and save lives and support the men and women on the ground, versus going, ‘Boy, I sure would love to be able to do something, but we can’t,’ ” Peck said.

Omaha police officials said they think Peck will help improve the unit. He had commanded the State Patrol’s air unit since 2003 and was hired by the department in January.

“No question, the last two years, the management of that unit had absolutely deteriorated to a point where people were becoming complacent,” said Keith Edquist, the owner of the North Omaha Airport, where the unit was based for 22 years before moving last year. “And complacency is what’s going to get you hurt on a helicopter.”

Schwarzbach said it’s quite uncommon for an agency to have two aircraft crashes in one year.

“Within the industry, we try not to crash our aircraft. Those incidents are expensive and also bring negative publicity,” said Schwarzbach. “It’s rare that a city or state or local law enforcement unit would have two incidents in a year.”

Omaha’s unit began in 1997 with four helicopters that were military surplus choppers and given to the department for free. Three of those were normally ready to fly at any given time — until 2019.

The unit started with four pilots, added another in 2004 and another in 2012 to make six, which is the number today.

Two pilots must fly together — one to steer the helicopter and the other to operate the infrared camera and integrated map tracking system. If a pilot was sick or on vacation, that affected the flight availability for that shift, Neumann said.

From 1999 to 2003, the unit had a full-time tactical flight officer, a trained officer who could do the surveillance part of the helicopter patrol. From 2003 to 2007, the unit used part-time tactical flight officers as needed. After 2007, TFOs no longer were used.

Currently, Sgt. Allen Straub, who oversaw the unit from March 2019 until January, serves as the unit’s only qualified tactical flight officer. Neumann said Omaha police plan to bring the TFO program back and train more officers to work as part-time TFOs. It would be a secondary job, like the SWAT team, and officers would be called in as needed. Having TFOs can free up another pilot who can be available to fly the helicopter instead of just doing surveillance, Neumann said.

“That will give us more assurance that we’ll be able to get that helicopter up in the air on a regular basis,” he said.

The department also is beefing up its training program. For one, the pilots will attend about a week of training at a flight school to learn how to fly the new 407 chopper. Additionally, the department will now pay for pilots to go to annual training at a manufacturer instead of using Omaha’s own helicopters for training exercises. Schwarzbach said many agencies now use either simulation training or send their pilots to flight schools instead of risking damage to their own aircraft.

“Performing training maneuvers in the factory’s aircraft, while not cheap, is usually more cost-effective than in your own aircraft due to the occurrence of incidents that damage aircraft, not to mention the wear and tear on the airframe,” Schwarzbach said.

Peck agrees.

“It’s better to go somewhere else — it’s their liability, it’s on them,” Peck said.

One of last year’s crashes occurred while pilots were attempting a training maneuver. The other occurred on a flight to a planned training day.

Police officials already had been making changes to the unit’s training protocols last year before the crashes. They had hired Oliver Enterprises in April to assist in training after training with an in-house certified flight instructor had been “inconsistent,” Neumann said.

“(The problem was) the lack of outside, consistent, routine training. A second set of eyes on our group,” he said.

While a helicopter was flying to the second day of training at Blair Municipal Airport from the North Omaha Airport on April 16, pilots made an emergency landing and damaged the tail. Officers Dustin Hill and Matthew Baughman were uninjured.

A National Transportation Safety Board aviation report said the pilots reported a loss of rotor RPM and engine power of the Bell OH58, but an engine examination later showed that it “responded normally to all power demands.” The NTSB report didn’t conclude how or why the engine loss occurred.

Neumann said Oliver Enterprises was scheduled to return for training in September, but then another crash occurred Aug. 16. Baughman and Officer Brian Yaghoutfam crash-landed the Bell 206 helicopter on its side after a loss of engine power occurred while the pilots were performing a training maneuver at the Blair airport, according to an NTSB report.

The unit was shut down until Sept. 24, and Oliver Enterprises was brought in to conduct a full inspection of the unit. The report, which city officials denied to release in full despite a World-Herald public records request, recommended that the unit hire an “experienced aviator in a command leadership position,” city documents said.

Schwarzbach said that of the 16 law enforcement agencies across the country that are accredited through his association, none has had as many crashes as Omaha within such a short period of time. To be accredited, he said, agencies must follow strict guidelines that are considered the best practices for the industry.

“For those units that have adopted the standards, they certainly haven’t seen incidents like Omaha had this past year,” he said.

The organization held its annual training and educational conference in Omaha in July 2019. Peck said all of the Omaha police pilots are members, but the unit is not accredited, although that is an “end goal.”

Peck promised change, and he said the unit’s pilots have been open to that.

“Just give us a little time. I’m pretty confident,” Peck said. “We have the right staff, the right pilots, the right maintenance, the right support. It just takes a little time to get back to where we should be able to be.”

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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