Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) is the local law enforcement organization in the landlocked central Floridan county, situated between Tampa in the west and Orlando in the northeast. Its Aviation Unit, based at the Wilkinson-Rhoden Aviation Complex in Bartow Executive Airport, has eight regular pilots, led by one Chief Pilot – a mix of ‘sworn law enforcement officers [and] civilians’, says Lieutenant Paul Wright – all of whom have, or are training to acquire, certificates for the operation of both commercial airplanes and helicopters – as well as a number of part-time Flight Officers. New pilots are recruited to the team through a nationwide search, while PCSO’s Tactical Flight Officers are selected from other branches of the organization itself.
One moment an aircrew could be searching for offenders unlawfully harvesting palmetto berries in a rural area, to managing a vehicle pursuit involving multiple law enforcement agencies in areas of complex airspace in Orlando or Tampa
The unit operates 24 hours a day, participating in a range of missions ‘as diverse as the landscape’ of Polk County itself, Wright explained. The county, whose territory exceeds 2,000 square miles (5,180km2), covers everything from 550 lakes to citrus groves and pastures of the Lake Wales Ridge, to the busy central section of the I-4 Interstate Highway, which runs between Orlando and Tampa, the majority of which is situated within Polk County.
“One moment an aircrew could be searching for offenders unlawfully harvesting palmetto berries in a rural area, to managing a vehicle pursuit involving multiple law enforcement agencies in areas of complex airspace in Orlando or Tampa,” said Wright.
Wright added that one challenge facing the Aviation Unit was the threat of laser strikes, a growing concern across the US and worldwide in recent years. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported a record number of laser strike incidents in 2021, with 9,723 such cases reported for the year – including 630 incidents in the state of Florida alone.
“Our helicopters have been subjected to laser strikes, which have resulted in the identification and arrest of several persons,” says Wright. However, he explained that the PCSO Aviation Unit works closely with terminal control facilities in Orlando and Tampa to incidents.
PCSO operates three helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft
The unit carries out a range of missions, with its helicopter fleet – two Robinson R66 helicopters and an MD500 – largely being used for tactical and preventative patrol missions. The aircraft are equipped with stability augmentation systems (SAS), autopilot systems, as well as the L3 Harris WESCAM MX-10 imaging system.
a Cessna 182T is primarily used for the transport of cargo, personnel, and passengers, as well as for aerial surveillance
“Tactical patrol missions normally consist of area searches for offenders and missing persons, pursuit management and search and rescue. Preventative patrol missions respond to specific crime trends, such as vehicle burglaries … or environmental crimes such as unlawful dumping,” Wright explained.
Meanwhile, the Aviation Unit’s fixed-wing aircraft, a Cessna 182T, is primarily used for the transport of cargo, personnel, and passengers, as well as for aerial surveillance. Wright says the unit is currently considering the possibility of provisioning the aircraft with ‘imaging and mapping systems’ to expand the aircraft’s functional capabilities.
The aircraft are maintained by Dixie Jet and Rotor Service, a local maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) firm based at Lakeland Linder International Airport in the west of the county. While weekly inspections of the aircraft are carried out by Dixie at the Wilkinson-Rhoden base, more intensive scheduled maintenance is conducted at Dixie’s base in Lakeland.
Five decades of policing in the air
The Aviation Unit celebrates its 50th birthday this year, having been founded in 1972 – coincidentally, the same year that its current Sheriff, Grady Judd, began his law enforcement career.
To celebrate the milestone, Wright says that the unit has commissioned a ‘challenge coin’ to commemorate the occasion, which will display some of the aircraft that have been operated by the unit during the past five decades.
As PCSO progresses into the future, Wright explained that the department has plans to move towards a ‘uniformed aircraft asset model’ from next year, phasing out its remaining MD500 in favor of a third R66 from January 2023. The change will enable PCSO to significantly reduce the operating and maintenance costs of its aircraft fleet as part of its plans to become more cost-effective as an organization in the face of growing demand for its services.
Sheriff Grady Judd explained: “Polk County is the fastest growing county in Florida. A principal goal of the Aviation Unit is to enhance the airborne law enforcement services provided in support of the investigations and operations conducted by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office while reducing operating costs. Transitioning to the Robinson R66 Police Helicopter will help ensure we achieve this goal as we prepare for the next 50 years.”
‘Looking forward to 50 more years’
Judd explained that the shift towards the R66 will save as much as ’60 per cent of our operating costs’. Reducing operating costs is a key priority for PCSO as Polk County’s population continues to grow – Sheriff Judd added that the region is the ‘fastest growing area of Florida’ in terms of population – a change likely to result in an increase in demand for PCSO’s aerial services.
Polk County Sheriff’s Office operates one of the largest small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) programs in the country
Between the county’s growing population of around 750,000 people and its varied, rural landscape, ‘Being able to traverse the county in a helicopter and provide back-up to ground units’ will continue to be ‘an essential part of our law enforcement mission”, he explained.
In addition to the modernization and standardization of its regular aviation operations, PCSO has also been adapting in other ways, incorporating new technologies and adapting to new challenges.
“Polk County Sheriff’s Office operates one of the largest small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) programs in the country,” said Wright, who added that PCSO’s sUAS pilots often work together ‘seamlessly’ with the Aviation Unit, as well as the ground-based Canine Unit.
Judd is optimistic about the future of police aviation in Polk County and believes that these changes will guarantee the Aviation Unit’s place in it. “We are looking forward to 50 more years of keeping people safe from up above, as well as supporting our neighboring law enforcement agencies’ missions.”