Patrol by propeller

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

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
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