Patrol by propeller

On a cold Northern Indiana morning, a UPS driver discovered an elderly woman—who died at some point during the night—in a snow bank. After local police received the report, they found it was a woman they had been looking for the night before who had wandered off from the hospital, only going as far as 3/4 of a mile before falling into the snow and succumbing to the cold.

Randy Phillips, a sergeant with the Lake County Sheriff’s Department in Crown Point, Ind., says that incident inspired area agencies to find a better way to track wanderers. “In the winter time in the cold, the elements will get you pretty quick,” Phillips says. Working to make more rescues instead of body recoveries, several agencies in the area joined up with a non-profit missing persons organization (Project Lifesaver, see editor’s note on Page 27). The Lake County Sheriff’s Department pitched in as well, assisting on five such calls last year, each resulting in quickly locating the missing party and avoiding another tragic, preventable loss. A vital element of those five rescues was Lake County’s 3-year-old single engine helicopter, which is better able to pinpoint the wanderers using radio frequency tracking in the air versus with a ground-only SAR team and equipment.

“Five people we’ve gone to look for we found in under 15 minutes,” Phillips says. “With the helicopter, you can cover a lot more area than you can on foot.” That’s just one example of how the Lake County Aviation Division’s new tool—the single-engine 2-ton EC120 helicopter—boosts the department’s patrol and service abilities for the more than 600 square miles of area under the unit’s watch.

Patrol aloft Lake County

Located about an hour from downtown Chicago, Lake County is situated in the upper most Northwest corner of Indiana. Serving approximately 500,000 citizens, it is the second largest population by county, and the police department operates the only aviation unit in Northwest Indiana. The land and water area (including the southern part of Lake Michigan) of Indiana’s upper corner presents unique challenges that ground units alone cannot cover. In addition to patrolling remote parts of the county, the Lake County aviation unit provides support operations to the various units within the department, which can include reducing risk in car pursuits by allowing the air unit to track a suspect, airborne search and rescue, gang unit support, auto theft unit backup, first on-scene for large accidents, water rescues, wild fire surveillance, and other calls for service.

In 2009, Lake County Police Department, with the help of federal funding, was able to acquire its first new turbine engine helicopter: the Eurocopter EC120. Prior to that, Phillips was flying a military surplus helicopter from the early ’70s. While it’s not uncommon for agencies to be operating 45-year-old aircraft, former captain with the Gainesville (Fla.) PD and aviation unit commander for the agency, Ed Van Winkle, explains it does create a disadvantage financially and tactically.

Van Winkle says it’s a challenge most government aviation division leaders face, and that airships in service for 45 years have aged technological abilities and can burden an agency with costly unscheduled maintenance needs. On older helicopters, like the familiar Bell OH-58s, components wear out from length of service and use, and more things break. Since he retired from Gainesville after 20 years, Van Winkle is now the law enforcement marketing manager for American Eurocopter, the U.S. civilian and military aircraft maker that also manufactured Lake County’s shiny new airship.

“There [are] a lot of law enforcement aviation units like Lake County Sheriff’s that, before they bought a new helicopter, were flying military surplus,” Van Winkle says. “That’s one of the things that helps me work well with these agencies: I have the same background as them.”

Less to fly, less to buy

With the EC120 on duty and the 38-year leap in aviation technology, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department gained significant advantages. It’s the most modern, light, single-engine helicopter on the market, Van Winkle says, for a few reasons.

“There’s extensive use of composites, both Kevlar, fiberglass and other,” he says. “So they’re light and they’re extremely durable.” For example, unlike the older, metal main blades, EC120’s blades are made with little metal. Instead of requiring replacement after 3,500 flight hours, they’re 20,000-hour blades. At 500 hours a year, those blades can last for 40 years before they require replacement. (And 500 hours seems a reasonable number. Lake County, for instance, flew 400 miles in 2011 as part of its regular daily patrol plus special call outs and missions.)

The shiny sheriff-brown and yellow-painted EC120 was purchased with money the agency set aside for a helicopter acquisition and a boost of grant money and has logged close to 800 flight hours to date. It cost approximately $2.1 million, which includes the array of technology on board (FLIR, moving mapping system, night vision, a remote control SX-5 Night Sun searchlight).

The technological capabilities of the EC120 reduce a pilot’s workload with visual and audio alerts.

With the mapping system and FLIR imaging system, the EC120 can more safely and effectively take on high-risk and time-sensitive incidents in progress.

For example, Phillips describes an incident in which the state police had a man with multiple felony warrants take off on foot into a field after a traffic stop. It was dark, and the first pass with the Lake County chopper only identified the ground units, including police K-9 and some deer. On a second pass the pilot spotted an individual laying on a grassy area between the road and an irrigation ditch. The police pilots directed a squad car to within 3 feet of the individual, who never moved during the observation.

“The suspect … never knew we were in the air because that 120 is a very quiet helicopter,” Phillips says. “He had no idea we were [there] and had him on our FLIR screen the entire time,” say Phillips.

That quiet quality of the EC120 is thanks largely in part to its specially designed tail rotor called the Fenestron. The design includes more rotor blades with uneven angular spacing to better distribute the motor’s noise over different frequencies, which means a more stealth, hushed airship. Reduced noise and a smaller “footprint” provide multiple advantages over larger helicopters that are easier to spot. The Fenestron tail also gives the pilot better control in the air.

“It actually gives you what we call more tail rotor authority,” Phillips, who’s been flying for 12 years, explains. “If you’re in a cross wind in the [OH-58s], depending on how high the wind is, with the 120 you have more thrust, more tail rotor authority and you’re not working as hard.”

Phillips says the EC120 is a great fit for the department, and the feedback has been positive, too; citizens say they’re pleased with this use of their tax dollars (a rare sentiment, as the law enforcement official knows).

“A lot of people see us flying or read about us in the paper when we do pursuits, or help save somebody ... and say they think it’s great,” Phillips says. “It’s a good feeling when you’ve got people out there in the community saying it’s a great thing to have.”


Editor’s note: For further details on Project Lifesaver, which provides tech and resources to help track people who wander due to autism, dementia or similar cognitive conditions, visit