As the United States military retired more and more aircraft to the desert boneyards of the southwest, members of Congress and other persons had other ideas. Why not allow certain state and local governments the opportunity to use these aircraft in their own aviation programs? The acquisition costs are much lower, and many agencies that could not dream of an aviation unit could now get into the game and have airborne assets relatively cheaply. These military surplus flying machines have become known as "public use aircraft." In some cases "public use" aircraft are unique in that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not certify them, and FAA has no authority to regulate them. Often these are surplus military aircraft used by federal, state, or local governments for very good and valid purposes, but because the FAA does not regulate them, those aircraft often are less expensive to operate than civil aircraft. Because FAA regulations are not imposed on operations of public use aircraft, there is some question in the minds of many people whether they are as safe as civilly regulated aircraft.
The primary benefit of obtaining a used, military surplus aircraft is usually related to cost. In today's world, a brand new law enforcement turbine helicopter can cost upwards of $2 million. In many cases, this initial start-up cost deters and prevents many municipalities from using these valuable resources. A military surplus helicopter is obtained virtually cost-free, and is an enticing proposition for many agencies. Another benefit is the availability of some big and powerful equipment. For example, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department was able to obtain surplus Navy Sikorsky H-3 helicopters and use them in a very successful search and rescue program known as "Air-5." The Air 5 rescue program provides some of the nation's most advanced technical rescue capabilities. With a flight crew of two deputy sheriff pilots, a crew chief sergeant, and two Emergency Service Detail deputy sheriff-paramedics, the team is deployed on search and rescue and over-water operations. Without military surplus aircraft, this program could only be sustained at great expense.
The biggest drawback to a military surplus aircraft is that the airframe is usually tired and old. The receiving government agency must take the aircraft "as is," and do the necessary modifications and repairs to either make it flyable, or to ,aintain its flight-worthiness. In some cases, parts are difficult to come by, or the unanticipated expenses of making the aircraft flyable are high, and the municipality ends up not getting the program off the ground (pun intended).
The introduction of these military airframes does not come without their share of challenges and controversy. Aircraft manufacturers are caught in a quagmire. The manufacturers want agencies to buy new aircraft, yet these military surplus aircraft have in some cases been the first step to an aviation capability for a law enforcement agency. After using a military surplus aircraft for a few years, the agency trades-up to a brand new aircraft. Manufacturers want to encourage that growth, yet do not want the surplus military aircraft to dominate the market.
The FAA also has wrestled with the rules, regulations and procedures of the so-called "public use" aircraft. Keep in mind that these aircraft were manufactured outside of the formal FAA certification process. Now, these same aircraft are going from the military to the law enforcement side of the house. The FAA has had a difficult time figuring out exactly what they want to do about these aircraft. The aircraft do not come with an FAA Airworthiness Certificate, and have not been maintained in accordance with any FAA regulations. This does not mean that the aircraft are unsafe. It means that the FAA inherits an aircraft that, in large part, they know little about, and now have to contend with complex regulatory and legal issues. In large measure, the FAA has taken a "hands off" approach to military surplus aircraft. The pilots and airframes do not have to meet FAA requirements, and the supervision of the flight crews and aircraft is left up to the particular agency. Along those lines, most airborne units do a remarkable job of maintaining their aircraft and flight crews in accordance with FAA and industry standards. In some cases, they exceed the requirements.
Public use aircraft also have a difficult time staying within the definition of "public use." In some cases, flight training and certain missions are not considered "public use" and alternate arrangements must be made. For example, public use aircraft cannot perform transport of passengers. That means whether a local government is moving prisoners or moving firefighters, they have to use civil aircraft--aircraft that are in compliance with FAA regulations. The result of this requirement, as interpreted by FAA, is that prisoners cannot be transported while restrained in handcuffs. The FAA does not permit passengers to be forcibly restrained, because in an emergency they would be unable to protect themselves or be safely evacuated from an aircraft. Another problem is in firefighting. Firefighting activities are permitted to be conducted by public use aircraft, but the transport of firefighters to the area of the fire is not allowed with public use aircraft. Aviation units that use military surplus aircraft have to constantly keep the "public use" concept in mind when performing operational missions. Although not intentional, an agency can unwittingly run afoul of the regulations by performing a mission that is not considered "public use". This can lead to civil and regulatory penalties. The whole issue of public use aircraft is so complex that the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) has devoted considerable time and resources in helping police aviation units sort out the rules, regulations and procedures.
As a whole, the military aircraft surplus program is viewed as a success. The benefits enjoyed by many agencies by operating these aircraft are numerous. However, as in many different areas of law enforcement, the introduction of military surplus aircraft requires a strong commitment to leadership, professionalism and good old hard work to make sure the particular program is conducted safely and effectively.