The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) Aviation unit is still a relative newcomer to aviation compared to others in the field that have been in operation for 30 or 40 years. Nonetheless, the CCSO unit, since 1996, has transformed from a law enforcement-focused unit using government surplus aircraft to one that now serves in a true multi-mission capability. Serving not just in a law enforcement capacity but also providing life-saving search and rescue capabilities, aerial firefighting, and even mosquito spraying ability for the citizens of Charlotte County, Florida.
Commencing operations in 1996, the agency’s aviation unit began with the delivery of two U.S. Army surplus UH-1H helicopters, followed shortly after by three surplus OH-58s. Under the tutelage of the initial unit commander and founder of the unit Mark Brownie, the unit functioned with one of the UH-1s. It moved the other UH-1 to the county’s mosquito control unit. Under a new chief pilot, Rob Steht, the unit began phasing out the use of the OH-58 airframe, taking delivery of an AS-350BA that would function in a law enforcement role. In 2019, thanks to a grant from Firehouse subs, the aircraft was fitted with a hook and a belly band was added for rescue capabilities in 2020.
After Steht’s departure in July of 2018, the unit was headed up by Chief Pilot Shane Englauf, a military veteran and former OH-58D Kiowa Warrior pilot. Englauf saw the unit’s need to continue to progress in its multi-mission capabilities continuing to phase out the now-aging OH-58s. He returned them to the 1033 program as the unit took possession of the new AS350BA shortly before Englauf took on the chief pilot role.
Under Englauf’s leadership, the aviation unit was able to work with the command staff of the Sheriff’s office to secure funding for a second AS350. This time the most current model, the AS350B3e, would again be deployed in a multi-mission capability. The helicopter would be performing aerial firefighting missions, law enforcement, and search and rescue; being able to be quickly reconfigured between tasks when needed.
The agency’s UH-1H began firefighting missions using a Bambi bucket drop system in 1998 and has now transitioned to using an Isolair belly tank. The Isolair multi-mission tank is a dual-use tank capable of mosquito control spraying. After removing the booms and the actuating a switch at the front of the tank, it can function as a traditional firefighting tank using the attached snorkel to pull water.
The agency averages about 500 flight hours per year and has seen a steady increase. Englauf shared that flight time can vary significantly from year to year. However, multi-agency responses increase year after year from mutual aid agreements between surrounding counties and the requirements of larger fires that are now becoming more frequent.
“Last year, we had a pretty high number of calls. And it seems like the more people know about our unit and its capabilities, the more other agencies have started asking for our help. So it’s gone from when I first started here, from two or three fire missions to last year we were upwards of 15 aerial firefighting mission call-outs. We traveled down to Fort Myers or other areas for mutual aid calls. Once agencies recognized we had the capacity that a Huey brings and that we’ll travel when needed to fight fires and provide needed assistance to control a fire, word travels quickly.”
Fire call-outs for CCSO’s aviation unit come through Charlotte County Fire, headed up by deputy fire chief Jason Fair. From there, mutual aid calls can come from surrounding counties (like Lee County) and provide assistance for Sarasota county when their aircraft is down for maintenance. The CCSO Aviation Unit has responded to calls in Inglewood in Sarasota County and fought an enormous blaze at the Fort Myers airport in Lee County that engulfed over 3500 rental cars in an overflow lot.
Ground Support Advantage
Another unique advantage to an aerial firefighting response by Charlotte County is establishing a ground support operation quicker than many other agencies. When the call came in from Charlotte County Fire for mutual aid to fight a rapidly growing fire at the Fort Myers Airport, CCSO’s aviation unit sprang into action. They readied their UH-1H and coordinated a ground support operation to sustain their firefighting ability for as long as needed.
Ground support came from the unit’s lead mechanic and avionics technician, Dan Ijpkemeule, who also doubles as flight crew and ground support operations when needed. He was joined by other team members that set out to a water source near the fire with a fuel supply trailer used to fuel the aircraft in the field.
Also on board was field maintenance equipment for both the helicopter and the associated firefighting equipment, along with night vision equipment used during the fire. NVG equipment was used to help call the helicopter’s position over the water source to assist Chief Pilot Shane Englauf in refilling the belly tank via snorkel. The operation lasted into the night, requiring almost 90 drops to extinguish along with work from ground units. (The cause of the fire that gained national and international attention was later attributed to an idling vehicle starting the blaze as long grass ignited off a hot exhaust system, sparking a massive multi-agency response).
As the fire raged past dusk, the CCSO aircraft was the only aircraft that could continue firefighting operations as other aircraft were not equipped to fight fires after dark. CCSO’s aircraft could continue firefighting thanks to their ground support assets and NVG capabilities.
Englauf recalls that the operation was an overall success looking back on the event. Thanks in large part to the multi-agency response that included assistance from the Lee County Sheriff and help from the Florida Department of Forestry, each providing aerial assets used in the response.
Around the Clock Support
Although staffing is still growing, the unit now has two full-time pilots, four tactical flight officers (TFOs.) TFOs are a mix of road officers, dedicated unit officers. Two mechanics (one of which is a highly qualified avionics technician) in addition to several volunteers that are experienced A&P mechanics make up the rest of the CCSO aviation unit.
Each TFO is also a trained rescue specialist who can switch from the front of the aircraft to the back to perform as a crew chief or rescue technician as needed depending on the aircraft dispatched or the mission dispatched.
While the unit currently maintains coverage for 16 hours a day, six days a week, the agency has a team on call 24 hours a day for rapid response when needed to scramble and assist whenever the need arises.
To continue to innovate, the unit looked in 2018 to hire Dan Ijpkemeule, an avionics technician with decades of experience that was also an A&P mechanic, to lead the agency’s push to modernize and customize their equipment as much as possible within their budgetary constraints. Dan also brought on an additional maintenance technician to help achieve that goal, who is also currently gaining his A&P mechanic certifications.
Along with Ijpkemeule, Chief Pilot Englauf has worked with the Charlotte County Fire Department to improve their firefighting response and has designed a system that will allow the unit to fight fires more effectively, a foam system that is currently awaiting installation on the agency’s UH-1H. Being a 1033 military surplus aircraft enables the agency to design and manufacture unique equipment that would not be fitted to certificated aircraft.
The foam system the team has designed will be operated via a switch on the cyclic that will inject a small amount of foam into the existing tank system as it is being filled with water, agitating the water/foam mix as it fills.
Testing by the unit has shown that even with a small amount of foam injected into the water as it is filling, that the drops have increased coverage effectiveness when compared to plain water. The system will be installed after the aircraft’s annual inspection in the early spring of 2021.
In addition to the groundbreaking work completed by Ijpkemeule on firefighting equipment, the team’s focus was to complete the fit-out of the departments’ new AS350B3e that arrived after purchasing from Brunner Aerospace in Texas in June of 2020.
Planning for the Future
The team went to work immediately, taking stock of what they had. The team then began requesting the things needed for the county’s perfect multi-mission aircraft. Once all requests were approved, this gave the unit the ability to custom design and build a completion that worked to provide the most mission-capable aircraft for their requirements.
Ijpkemeule went right to work in designing everything needed from the ground up. Dismantling everything except the engine displays in the cockpit, everything he said has been either reinstalled from scratch or custom-designed to fit the agency’s mission and requirements.
Retaining some equipment was worthwhile, said Ijpkemeule, they retained a Garmin G500, but the rest was removed to install newer or more functional equipment.
“It was a stock system when we received it. There was an ADSB transponder unit installed at Unifly in Texas, which we retained, but with the exception of the VEMD and the G500, we made everything work for us the way we wanted it. What’s nice about being an avionics guy is that I knew exactly what I wanted to put in it right off the bat, so basically, we made a list, and we got everything approved that we needed.” Said Ijpkemeule.
The agency’s B3e was delivered with an external load window in the floor from its previous life. It worked completing external load work in Costa Rica, which was a bonus for the team, making external load work easier. The aircraft was also delivered with an external load mirror that was both remote control operated and heated, and new in the box. A bonus for visibility of the external load hook installed on the aircraft for use with a Bambi Bucket and human external cargo loads in a rescue scenario.
Also installed on the aircraft is a 15-inch screen that feeds visuals from the FLIR 380HDc into the cockpit from Macro Blue that also runs a moving map system via touch screen input from Churchill avionics. The unit also has a backup keyboard hidden in a slide-out compartment installed under the left side horizontal bar support inside the cockpit.
“When we took out all of the equipment, we drew out a template of the old one and just started laying instruments out, and then we realized that with some real minor modifications, we would be able to slide everything around, leaving the VEMD in its original spot but make everything fit the way we wanted it. The big benefit of that is that the crew has their visibility. So that was cool when we got that giant display in the panel with everything we wanted.”
Ijpkemeule stated that leaving the G500 in the aircraft was a no-brainer, saying it is still a very dependable piece of equipment, combined with a Garmin GTN650, a Jupiter Avionics audio panel, and the already installed ADSB transponder unit.
Coupled with a custom center console, Ijpkemeule custom wired to transfer the traditional push-button center console to a flick switch control panel. This took him and his team more than 100 hours to custom install; the AS350B3e of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s office is truly a one-of-a-kind multi-mission aircraft customized to suit their unique requirements.
An install such as this can be quite the challenge for even a seasoned installer or avionics technician. Still, with the support of CCSO leadership and Shane Englauf at the unit level, Ijpkemeule found that the install and customization required a unique thought process. Design and seamless installation were made easier by the team’s teamwork from the Sheriff down the line, completing the customized install of all components in about two months. Having been operational now for over 30 hours of flight time, the aircraft has had zero squawks since its installation and completion.
Adding to the highly customized interior of the AS350B3e is a cargo hook that can carry a Bambi Bucket for aerial firefighting or carrying a long external line for rescue work that attaches either a 50 or 100 foot ARS long line.
The line attaches to a “Penetrator,” rescue seat unit from Life Saving Systems which is similar to a Vietnam era unit that was called a forest penetrator that allows a rescuer and subject to be lifted from the water while being harnessed both around the waist and to a seated platform that folds down in a rescue evolution. This offers both a more comfortable and safe extraction than a traditional “strop” extraction sling device.
All of these pieces of mission equipment, including the Bambi Bucket, can be put into the back of the aircraft before a patrol flight to allow for the rapid deployment of whatever is needed during a given shift by the crew landing and quickly reconfiguring the aircraft for whatever mission is required. Such was the unit staff planning to make their aircraft easily reconfigurable on the move, with only a small amount of work needing to be done to be prepared for any of the mission requirements they may have in a given shift.
When looking at how far the aviation unit has come since its inception, Englauf stated, “Having the support of our Sheriff behind us, along with the other agencies we support, like Charlotte County fire and Mosquito Control, has been the key to our ongoing success. Being able somewhat to roll everything aviation in the county into one unit has been fantastic. You see many larger communities with many air assets, and each is separate for single mission requirements into individual air units that only focus on one thing, so it ends up costing those counties a lot more. If we did that, we wouldn’t have the capacity to keep all those units separate. So being able to get all of our agencies on the same page related to aviation is a great achievement that we are proud of. It also keeps it interesting for our pilots and crew chiefs and everybody else to have the multi-mission capability and response. It’s never the same thing from one day to the next.”