VIRGINIA BEACH - For several hours each day and night, eyes keep watch over the city from above. They search the horizon for pillars of smoke, scan the Atlantic coast for flares and inspect rooftops and streets for signs of trouble. They're poised to turn the spotlight on fugitives, pluck stranded souls from the water or rush crash victims to the nearest hospital. If the city's airborne guardian had a name, it would be Victor - 911 Victor Bravo - the call sign for the Police Department's lead helicopter.
The $2.9 million Bell 407 is one of the newest tools in the department's arsenal of crime-fighting equipment. I t also serves a new function, bringing volunteer paramedics onboard to evacuate critical patients to the hospital. Since the Bell 407 entered service in August, the helicopter's medevac capability has been used twice - in October to transport a car crash victim and in January to help a woman having a heart attack on Knotts Island . Both people survived. Emergency responders hope the option will prove increasingly useful in the months and years to come.
About five years ago, the Police Department began looking at replacing its aging 1981 Jet Ranger helicopter, Deputy Chief James Cervera said. There was a heavy price attached, so they decided to squeeze as much out of the purchase as possible. "It's a heavy cost, so why not make it multi functional?" Cervera said. The department eyed a new Bell 407 helicopter and bought it with a combination of federal drug forfeiture money , city reserve money and leftover salary dollars unclaimed during the 2004- 05 fiscal year because of vacant positions. They built a new hangar to accommodate the bird and unveiled the navy-blue copter in September 2008. Mechanics outfitted the aircraft with a slew of new equipment designed to better fight crime, assist with fire fighting and transport injured patients.
Throughout the summer, the Helicopter Unit's six pilots completed extensive medevac training alongside two dozen Emergency Medical Services paramedics. By August, 911 Victor Bravo and its crew were ready to fly. And in October, the old Jet Ranger sold for $365,000, money that went to replenish city reserve funds used for the Bell 407's purchase. "We have a multi functional piece of equipment that can be used as a police platform, as a rescue vehicle and as a fire fighting apparatus," Cervera said. "And it didn't cost any additional tax liability."
In addition to medical equipment, features on the Bell 407 include upgraded navigation systems and floats for emergency water landings. There's also an infrared system that locates cars and people on the ground using their heat signatures, as well as a hoist for pulling rescue victims into the cabin instead of dangling them below. The helicopter can also carry loads of water for dousing fires. The old helicopter's "night sun" - a flashlight with the strength of about 30 million candles - transferred over to the new aircraft. "The capabilities are endless with this helicopter," said Officer Henry J. Alvarez, a pilot and flight instructor. "We were so limited with the other helicopter."
Started in 1974, Virginia Beach's aviation unit is one of two among municipal police departments in the state , Cervera said. The other is in Fairfax County. Virginia State Police also have aircraft. The unit cost the city about $1.2 million last fiscal year, including training, fuel and maintenance for its two helicopters, the Bell 407 and 206. The unit is not a luxury, police and EMS officials said. "It's definitely the opposite of a luxury," Cervera said. "It's a fantastic tool we have to save lives." Despite state and local budget shortfalls, the Helicopter Unit isn't on the chopping block right now, Cervera said. The city will finalize its budget for fiscal year 2010- 11 in May .
There are two 10-hour shifts each day for the Helicopter Unit, one during the day and one at night. But the pilots don't fly the entire shift. Sometimes they don't fly at all, instead waiting at the hangar for calls for help or staying grounded to preserve fuel, avoid bad weather or conduct training and maintenance. For the first half of 2009, the unit responded to calls for help but did not conduct routine patrols - an effort to save on fuel, which cost $57,754 last fiscal year. Routine patrols resumed in August, according to the unit's monthly reports. The unit flew an average of 58.5 hours each month last year, helping locate at least two lost children, two boaters in distress and 43 people wanted for burglaries, robberies, malicious assaults and other crimes.
Through an agreement, the Beach's Helicopter Unit also responds to some emergencies in other cities. The unit flew a total of 702 hours and responded to 705 calls for service in 2009. The copters were grounded 772 hours because of weather, including during the November nor'easter. The helicopter's medevac capabilities supplement those provided by Nightingale, Sentara's air ambulance. The hope is that 911 Victor Bravo can respond faster, especially when it's already out on patrol, said Ed Brazle, operations division chief for EMS.
It typically takes between six and 15 minutes for Nightingale to arrive on a scene in Virginia Beach, said Chris Cannon, flight nurse and manager for the program. It took 15 minutes and 31 minutes for the Police Department's helicopter to arrive on scene during its medevacs in October and January, Brazle said in an e-mail . Nightingale is still providing regular service , especially when the police unit is unavailable. It also transports critical-care patients between hospitals, a service the Police Department doesn't offer. A group of eight police officers makes up the Helicopter Unit. Most have served at least three years and passed a series of tests.
To become pilots, they have to fly at least 350 hours and obtain their commercial and private aviation licenses, a process that takes about a year and a half. The Police Department trains most of its pilots in-house, but a few have flight experience from the Navy or other law enforcement agencies. On a cold, clear Friday evening this month, four officers and a volunteer are gathered in the Helicopter Unit's old hangar on Leroy Road, just southeast of the Municipal Center. The small office is decorated with model aircraft and a figure of a winged pig dangling from the ceiling. It's time for the night shift, which starts with a briefing. The primary mission: patrol the skies and provide backup for ground units, Officer Scott Abbott tells the crew. The secondary: help EMS and assist with search and rescue efforts if needed. Soon they're out on the heli pad, marked by blue lights and a red sign that says "Caution: Beware of Rotor Blade." Abbott circles the Bell 407 before taking the right seat as pilot. He'll fly the aircraft using foot pedals, a joystick and a lever that control lift, direction and speed. Officer Vincent "Vinny" W. Jones takes the left seat, where he'll work the radio to dispatch, communicate with air control and operate the helicopter's other equipment.
In the back wait a stretcher, an oxygen system and a bag of medical supplies in case a medevac call comes in. After about 50 pre-flight checks and roughly eight minutes, 911 Victor Bravo is in the air, hovering above black patches of trees with the city glittering all around. Abbott and Jones are soon flying down the boardwalk about 500 feet above the sand. Abbott takes a spin around Town Center and inspects the Newtown Road corridor . They pass over Ferrell Parkway, Regent University and Mount Trashmore, spotting a fender bender and a few traffic stops along the way. Except for the chopping of the aircraft's blades, everything looks quiet in Virginia Beach. "Sometimes I think a quiet night is good for everyone," Abbott says. But "it can get extremely hectic." At times the helicopter simply provides peace of mind for patrol officers and residents on the ground, he says. They return after about an hour, ready to switch roles. To avoid exhaustion, the pilots take turns flying . Each flight requires one pilot and one flight officer.
Later in the night, Jones takes the pilot's seat with volunteer flight officer Terry Buzzard assisting. About 10:40 p.m., they get a call for help. Police are looking for five men who jumped out of a stolen vehicle and fled into a subdivision off Princess Anne Road and Lynnhaven Parkway. Ground units caught four, but one is still on the loose. Jones circles the neighborhood while Buzzard peers through the infrared system, looking for a heat spot that might give the culprit away. No luck, but the K-9 unit finds him a short while later. By the end of the night, the team has logged about five flight hours and responded to six calls. "There's hours and hours of boredom followed by a few minutes of sheer terror," Jones says. "I think we had a very productive night," Abbott says during the end-of-shift debriefing. "Just being airborne, we're already doing proactive police work."
Kathy Adams, (757) 222-5155, email@example.com