Profile: New Jersey State Police Aviation Bureau

NJSP AW139
NJSP Profile

In a 911 emergency or patrolling the skies on homeland security missions, the citizens of the US state of New Jersey know that they have a highly trained aviation team on hand. We take a peek inside the vital state service

The sheer size and diversity of the US means that each state requires different services from its aviation unit. The Aviation Bureau of New Jersey is state-funded and run and maintained by the New Jersey State Police (NJSP).

“Our programme is designed to best serve the people of New Jersey (NJ), and we are unique in this way,” explains Raymond Jacobs, bureau chief at NJSP’s Technical Response Bureau. “Each [US] agency has fine-tuned its operation to suit its own requirements. However, we all operate within the guidelines set by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and in this way are united.” 

Responding to citizens’ needs

The NJSP Aviation Bureau was first established in 1969 with a mere 14 troopers and was initially named the Helicopter Patrol Bureau.

“Over the years, the Bureau has grown in size and scope and has evolved to meet the ever-changing needs of the State Police and the citizens of New Jersey,” says Jacobs, going on to outline the full scope of the Aviation Bureau. “[It] provides fully mission-capable aircraft, skilled pilots and maintenance technicians that efficiently, effectively and safely respond to any emergent events,” he explains. “The Bureau provides support for various commands within the State Police as well as other agencies that request airborne assistance in accomplishing their duties. This service is a 24/7, two-fold approach – one as a medevac response, and the other as a law enforcement/homeland security function that can prevent acts of terrorism, protect critical infrastructure sites and mitigate any type of disaster.”

Our members can reach areas that are otherwise inaccessible, such as mountainside locations or disabled ships on the water

The NJSP fleet 

In July 2012, the NJSP followed US Customs and Border Protection and the Los Angeles Fire Department in taking delivery of an AW139 helicopter, bringing its fleet to five. The five AgustaWestlands (Leonardos) were a replacement of its older fleet, which included Sikorsky models. The Department of Law and Public Safety hoped to sell some of these to soften the rumoured $6.4-million price tag of the new fleet. Unfortunately, no one wanted these older helicopters that were fitted out for medevacs, and on an online auction website for unwanted government goods they sold only one smaller Bell helicopter for $642,000.

The AW139s – twin-engined with a five-bladed rotor, tricycle landing gear and a maximum cruise speed of 167 knots – were a huge boost to the Aviation Bureau’s capabilities. “These helicopters enhance our response capabilities in tactical and search and rescue operations,” said Major Brian McPherson, commanding officer of the state police’s Special Operations Section at the time. “

Our members can reach areas that are otherwise inaccessible, such as mountainside locations or disabled ships on the water. The AW139 allows us to extract victims and provide immediate medevac to area hospitals, which will save lives.”

Today, the NJSP Aviation Bureau also operates one Bell 206L3, a Bell 206L4 and one military surplus OH-58. The Bureau consists of four units; three are operational units – Aviation North, Aviation Central and Aviation South – while one is a support unit – Aviation Training/Maintenance. The main base is located at Trenton Mercer Airport (KTTN). Aviation Central, along with Aviation Training/Maintenance, are based at KTTN, while Aviation North is at Somerset Airport (KSMQ) and Aviation South at Hammonton Airport (N81).

In November 2015, the State of NJ signed a three-year training contract, with the option to add an additional two years, with AugustaWestland (Leonardo). Ensuring regulation conformity, it includes simulator training for NJSP pilots, enhancing safety and flexibility. “We have a singular focus on safety that has served us well over the many years we have been in operation,” says Jacobs.

State of New Jersey, USA

Medevac missions

The NJSP Aviation Unit oversees and maintains all aviation aspects of the New Jersey air medical programme in order to provide rapid emergency transport and care for trauma patients in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Emergency Medical Service Helicopter Response Program Fund was born with the single most important result that medevac operational coverage was able to be increased from 16 to 24 hours a day.

It was established in 1986 using hospital-based advanced life support paramedics as medical crew and New Jersey State Police (NJSP) officers as pilots. Known as JEMSTAR, the medevac programme is a partnership between the NJSP and the NJ Department of Health. In this partnership, the NJSP provides aircraft, pilots and mechanics, while the Department of Health provides funding for flight nurses and flight medics through a grant disbursed to hospitals who bid on the contract.

The partnership is backed, if necessary in a 911 emergency, by private air medical providers who have been licensed to provide air medical coverage. In 1992, a $1 surcharge on all car registrations in the state of New Jersey ensured a dedicated fund to support the medevac service. The New Jersey Emergency Medical Service Helicopter Response Program Fund was born with the single most important result that medevac operational coverage was able to be increased from 16 to 24 hours a day.

It remains the responsibility of the Aviation Bureau to provide medevac for the transportation of seriously injured victims of car crashes, industrial and recreational accidents to trauma centres, and the inter-hospital medevac transportation of seriously ill patients to specialist care facilities, such as cardiac centres, burn centres and replantation (body part reattachment) centres.

Homeland security missions

Of course, medevac missions are only one part of the Aviation Bureau’s work in the New Jersey skies. It also provides air support for the various commands within the Division of State Police and aids other law enforcement agencies in carrying out homeland security tasks. These include operations such as facilitating traffic flow by identifying congested areas; identification and surveillance of bridges, tunnels, powerplants, refineries and railways; and surveillance and alert notification of evacuation areas in the state’s Emergency Planning Zones.

Toby Hill, lieutenant at NJSP, explains: “Homeland Security is the most frequent mission because, in addition to the flights where that is the goal, we also look for ways to perform critical infrastructure checks during the return leg of each medevac mission. This may include checking out rail lines, bridges, chemical plants or refineries. We monitor and report suspicious people, vehicles and conditions for action by assets on the ground."

This is not forgetting the all-important search and rescue missions that the NJSP AW139s undertake, all of which are fitted with forward looking infrared capabilities: “The most interesting missions are the searches for suspects or missing people," says Lt Hill.

“Although New Jersey is a small state, we have mountains with remote hiking trails, crowded cities, farmland, deep lakes, uninterrupted pineland forest, and 130 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline. Over that diverse topography, aviation is critical. We can cover a lot of area in a helicopter compared to ground assets. When you add to that the abilities of infrared cameras, one flight can be more effective than hundreds of people searching on the ground. We also deploy tactical specialists to put them instantly in key positions for law enforcement raids or responses to developing emergencies. Those type of missions are likely to be the most challenging that we face.”

The most interesting missions are the searches for suspects or missing people

However, asked for examples of a difficult or challenging recent mission that the NJSP Aviation Bureau was proud to complete, the Bureau’s modesty was apparent. “It’s always difficult to answer questions about missions completed under difficult or tough conditions,” a representative told AMR. “Self-aggrandising tales are frowned upon in our community and promulgating stories of our exploits is seen as arrogant.” But the Bureau does admit: “Aviation played an important role in assessing the most critical needs in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. When communications are sketchy, there’s nothing like getting eyes on the landscape to help in the deployment of rescue resources.”

In the eye of the storm

Hurricane Sandy, otherwise known as Superstorm Sandy, destroyed huge swathes of the eastern seaboard in late 2012 and was the second-costliest hurricane in US history. New Jersey was one of the states that was particularly hard hit. The NJSP sheltered pilots with aircraft during the hurricane in order to respond without delay when the weather had passed. The role of the NJSP helicopters was critical in the rescue and recovery operations in the aftermath of previous hurricane seasons in other states. So, when Hurricane Sandy hit, many out-of-state troopers repaid the favour.

“When hurricanes Katrina and Andrew struck, many New Jersey officers selflessly helped with the rescue and recovery efforts in Louisiana, Florida and the other hard-hit Gulf States,” NJ’s Governor Christie said in 2012. “Now we have come full circle in our mutual support and service, with large contingents of officers coming here from Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida – we thank every single one of them.”

The Aviation Bureau has not escaped a perfect media storm however. On 31 May 2011, NJSP helicopters were deployed to escort Governor Chris Christie and his wife to their son’s high school baseball game and then to Princeton to meet with Republican business leaders. It was reputed to have cost the taxpayer $12.5 million, which was picked up and widely reported by the local media, who demanded that the governor refund the state. It has since been established that the NJSP do regularly bill the governor for his use of state helicopters for his personal use, although often not for the entire flight as the helicopter is repositioning or undertaking homeland security operations.

For the citizens of New Jersey, the NJSP Aviation Bureau has proved to be invaluable in medevac emergency response and search and rescue missions – it is a vital state service that none could imagine life without.