Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is poised to add its first helicopter to its air support fleet of planes and drones this summer.
Purchase of the nearly $3 million specially-equipped Bell 505 Jet Ranger X was approved by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors last fall.
“We’re really excited about being able to roll this out and have this capability for the county,” said Deputy Rick Hassna, chief pilot for the Sheriff’s Office.
While this is the first helicopter for the Sheriff’s Office, Hassna, a retired police lieutenant and former chief pilot for Oakland Police Department, is no stranger to rotorcraft.
When he first started flying helicopters, onboard navigation meant a Thomas Guide in his lap. Three decades later, technology has moved light years ahead. Hassna has kept pace with many of the changes.
He is a national authority in the innovative use of small, unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones. He helped the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office create one of the largest and most effective law enforcement drone teams in the world.
Soon, he will be at the controls of a helicopter equipped with cutting-edge avionics.
Instead of a paper map, a tactical flight officer flying with Hassna will set a course using an advanced augmented reality mapping system.
The mapping system can integrate in a single display satellite imagery, road maps, and real time video. Sensors and software on the display will automatically identify and track moving targets below, such as cars. Other pertinent information, such as the direction of travel and speed of the target, will also be shown.
Optical and short-wave thermal imaging cameras mounted on the helicopter will be able to provide the flight crew and incident commanders on the ground a clear eye in the sky, even in low light, rain, fog, smoke and haze.
The helicopter is expected to be deployed for a variety of missions, including air support for units on the ground at crime scenes, search and rescue, and fire fighting.
Hassna joined the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office after he retired as a lieutenant with the Oakland Police Department, with 28 years of service. He is often called upon by other law enforcement agencies for guidance and insight on establishing a small unmanned aerial systems program.
In December, Hassna was awarded an Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing in Washington, D.C., recognizing his innovative use of small drones for public safety operations.
As a pilot of planes, helicopters and drones, Hassna has flown and led hundreds of operations, including high-risk tactical operations that resulted in the apprehension of armed and dangerous fleeing criminals.
Name almost any high-profile disaster in the region—The Oakland Hills firestorm, the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, the Northern California wildfires of 2017, the Camp Fire of 2018 — Hassna was there, providing some type of assistance from the air.
Having a perspective from the sky can be critical for spotting dangers that might not be immediately visible from first responders on the ground, such as a straight drop-off ahead, Hassna said.
During disasters, like fast-moving wildfires, the helicopter, which has a PA system and loudspeaker, can be used to warn people below in several different languages.
Hassna envisions eventually coordinating with Oakland Police and the East Bay Regional Parks District to provide blanket helicopter coverage, where one of the agencies could dispatch a helicopter within minutes to anywhere in the county when called upon.
While drones are a safer and more cost-effective solution for some situations, under current FAA rules, helicopters still have a significant advantage for rapid response, since drone pilots must keep their aircrafts within their eyesight.
The Sheriff’s Office hopes to house the helicopter at Livermore’s municipal airport, LVK, along with its two Cessna 206 airplanes. It is on a waiting list for large hangar space and currently keeps one of the airplanes in a small hangar at the airport. The drone program is operated out of other space leased at the airport.
Hassna is scheduled in June to spend a week in hands-on training at the Bell Training Academy in Fort Worth, before heading to Piney Flats, Tenn. in July, where the Canadian-built helicopter was sent for completion.
Alameda County will be among the first law enforcement agencies in the state to acquire a Jet Ranger X, following the police departments in Sacramento and Stockton last year.
It is the first to purchase a new public safety configuration offered by Bell. In the past, departments would pay another company to outfit their helicopters for police use. Hassna said that because the Sheriff’s Office was an early adopter of Bell’s public safety configuration, it was able to negotiate a better price.
While $3 million is nothing to sneeze at, in the world of fully-equipped police helicopters, the Jet Ranger X is considered an affordable entry-level aircraft. With a speed of nearly 144 mph and a useful load (total weight of people, cargo, and fuel it can safely handle), the Bell 505 is designed to be safe and relatively easy to fly.
LaShan Bonaparte, program manager, for Bell 505 and Bell 429, said the public safety configuration is designed to meet the needs of local police and fire agencies that want to expand their capabilities with aerial operations.
“Bell recognized the need to develop and manufacture a public safety configured Bell 505 with the latest technology equipment on board to support these missions,” he said. “The Bell 505’s economic operational cost make it the best-in-class aircraft to support law enforcement personnel and the public safety of citizens around the world.”