Monday, November 28, 2016
Marion County Sheriff’s Office’s Aviation Unit valuable in high-profile cases
MARION COUNTY – When state officials needed to quickly get an aerial view of a two-train crash and derailment on Nov. 16 in a rural area of northeast Marion County, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office’s Aviation Unit provided valuable assistance to assess plans for cleaning up the wreckage, including a 7,500-gallon diesel fuel spill, and to help the overall investigation.
Ten days earlier, one of the unit's three helicopters was high above the county with staff members directing deputies on the ground to a stolen vehicle a suspect was driving recklessly at a high rate of speed on a busy road with teenagers in the car. A deputy successfully ended the pursuit when he performed a precision immobilization technique, or PIT maneuver, on the car. The driver jumped out and ran, then tried to steal several semi tractor trailer rigs at a truck stop. With the helicopter following him, the man was soon arrested.
Sheriff Emery Gainey described the aviation units as “critically” successful to law enforcement operations, especially in a county as large as Marion, which covers more than 1,600 square miles and is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
The population of the county includes more than 343,000 people, many of whom live in rural areas, small towns and sprawling retirement communities. The Sheriff's Office is the largest of the county's law enforcement agencies, and its aviation units -- with many recent examples -- are key to covering all corners.
The aviation unit commander, Lt. Don Standridge, said the unit has four pilots and a maintenance technician.
The unit has multiple missions to help serve the public, such as searching for people, vehicles or property; providing surveillance; and assisting other agencies, such as in the case of the recent pursuit, which began inside the city limits of Ocala and involved the Ocala Police Department before the vehicle careened through a long section of the county on the highly-traveled County Road 326.
And late last month, the unit helped locate an 18-year-old man with autism who had left his residence on a four-wheeler, which alarmed his family when he did not return. The helicopter pilot spotted the man and alerted deputies on the ground; he was safely returned to his home.
The unit's fleet of two OH-58 helicopters and a TH-67 helicopter are stored in a hanger at the Ocala International Airport. The OH-58s are equipped with FLIR 8500 infrared cameras, an aerocomputer map and a Trakkabeam Searchlight. The TH-67 does not have camera equipment.
Standridge said the helicopters are on loan from the federal government and when they are no longer being utilized or maintained, they must be returned to the government or be destroyed. The agency plans to keep them around, however, he added.
The OH-58s were built with technology used more than 30 years ago. The Sheriff's Office started using them in 1992; they had more than 16,395 hours of flight time between the two. Next year, Standridge said, the U.S. Army will no longer be using the OH-58s and though spare parts will be harder to come by, the MCSO helicopters are in “fantastic shape and we have adequate parts supplies to continue utilizing them well into the future.”
Standridge said the TH-67, the civilian version of the OH-58, was built in 2001 and there is no issue with parts. He said the TH-67 has more than 8,880 flight hours.
“Our plan is to acquire one more TH-67 in the future and, as the OH-58s become no longer usable, transfer the infrared cameras and mapping systems to the TH-67s,” he said.
He said all of the specialized pieces of mission equipment – such as cameras, radios, spotlights and monitors – were purchased with grant funding through the Department of Homeland Security.
“We are very cost effective,” he said.
Standridge also said that with the recent passage of a penny-cent sales tax in the county, the Sheriff's Office, which is a county agency, will be able to budget funds to buy new camera systems with higher definition, better zooming capabilities and infrared systems.
The man responsible for keeping the helicopters flying is Malcolm Pagels, the aviation unit’s chief technician. He has been with the Sheriff’s Office for more than 15 years.
Pagels said inspections are determined by how often the helicopters fly. Typically, he said, the helicopters fly anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours a day, and more as needed. He said the helicopters are routinely inspected and serviced after flying 25 hours, with more attention as warranted.
“The bigger the service, the more inspections and the more detailed the inspections are,” Pagels said.
Pagels is FAA certified to inspect and repair helicopters and also can also work on airplanes. He said his mission is “to keep them flying in a safe and timely manner.”
Sometimes, danger to the unit comes from civilians on the ground. In July, while the MCSO team was flying to an area near the Marion County/Lake County line searching for a suspect in a kidnapping, the helicopter was hit several times by a green laser over a span of about 10 minutes.
The crew remained focused on locating the suspect. As soon as the search ended, however, the laser light appeared again and the pilot was able to pinpoint the origin and directed Lake County deputies to the address. One man was arrested on six counts of pointing a laser light at a driver or pilot. His bond was set at $30,000.
Such an action is a federal offense. Violators can be imprisoned for up to five years and be fined $5,000.
Standridge called the action very dangerous because it distracts the crew while they are flying and “can also cause permanent eye damage and temporary blindness.”
With vehicle chases (such as the recent one), Gainey said, the aviation unit is an asset to the department because the pilot can communicate directly with ground deputies who can follow from a distance that will not cause unnecessary vehicle crashes or death to civilians and law enforcement officials.
Keefer Jordan Nicolo Shubert, 23, was charged with two counts of robbery-carjacking with a weapon because of the crime at the truck stop, two counts of child abuse because of the teens in the car, driving while license is suspended, felony fleeing and eluding law enforcement at a high rate of speed, and attempted occupied burglary of a conveyance. His bonds exceed $120,000. He remained in the jail as of Monday.
The train crash happened at 4:15 a.m. on Nov. 16. CSX officials reported 32 of the 210 train cars derailed and spilled 1,346 tons of coal, 1,150 tons of phosphate, 7,400 gallons of locomotive diesel fuel, 77 gallons of sulfuric acid from locomotive batteries and 10 gallons of locomotive lubrication oil.
According to a MCSO report issued last week, CSX engineer Chris Theriault, 48, of Waycross, Georgia, told deputies he had fallen asleep shortly before the crash.
The value of the aviation unit in that situation, Gainey said, was that the derailment had the potential of creating an environmental hazard, and, with the train tracks damaged, it was crucial for state officials, such as from the Florida Department of Transportation, to quickly view the impact from above and determine the best way to respond.
Posted by Kathryn on 4:49:00 PM