Air Support Bureau

Sheriff's Non-Emergency Dispatch:
714-647-7000 or 949-770-6011

Lieutenant Thomas Graham


The Sheriff's proposal for a helicopter support unit was approved by the Board of Supervisor's in July, 1984. Selection of personnel and equipment was completed and after an extensive training program, the Sheriff's two Hughes MD500E helicopters were dedicated to the memory and spirit of John Wayne during ceremonies conducted on May 21, 1985. Since then, "Duke I" and "Duke II" have been improving the Law Enforcement and other aviation support services provided to the citizens of Orange County.

During pilot selection, it was decided that it would be more advantageous to have two trained law enforcement officers in each aircraft, rather than a civilian pilot and a Deputy Sheriff observer. Staffing the unit with personnel that had both law enforcement and aviation experience resulted in considerable monetary savings and enabled the detail to rapidly reach a high level of operational efficiency.

The two original MD500E helicopters were replaced with two MD600N helicopters. The new helicopters were placed in-service in 1998. The Orange County Sheriff's Department was the first law enforcement agency in the Nation to begin operating the MD600N helicopters. The new helicopter was quieter, faster and safer to operate than the MD500E's they replaced, yet they retained virtually the same operating costs. The Department's research and evaluation during implementation and operation of the helicopter program placed it on the leading edge of Airborne Law Enforcement in the Nation.

Today, the Aviation Support Unit provides these same services, but with increased effectiveness and efficiency. The department recently purchased two American Eurocopters AS350B2 (ASTAR) helicopters. The first ASTAR arrived in March of 2005 and the second in March of 2006. These helicopters are very technologically advanced.


The Aviation Support Unit is staffed with one Sergeant and eight Deputy Sheriff II's. All are seasoned law enforcement veterans with a wide range of aviation and police experience. The average Unit member is 46 years old and has 22 years of law enforcement experience. Each pilot holds a FAA Airline Transport Pilot or a Commercial Pilot's Certificate with a rotorcraft-helicopter rating and has an average of 7,400 hours total flight time.

These highly qualified personnel, supported by an experienced management team of senior staff officers, provide a professional and safety oriented Air Support Unit.


Training of flight crews remains an on-going high priority and has contributed to an exemplary safety record and helped establish the helicopter's reputation in the aviation community as a safe and professional operation.

The Sheriff's pilot training program addresses four areas: initial training, refresher training, proficiency check rides and special operations training. The training program utilizes a combination of resources from within the department and privately owned and operated helicopter pilot training schools. Initial training assures pilot standardization in Aviation Support Unit patrol procedures and techniques, and provides information and skills essential to the safe and efficient conduct of assigned duties. Refresher training periodically refreshes pilots in initial training and special operations duties, skills and subjects. Proficiency flight checks are included to evaluate pilots in emergency procedures and other select flight operations during the interim between refresher training periods. If, as a result of the evaluation during a proficiency check, a pilot is found to be deficient in any area, immediate training is provided to bring the pilot back to the desired level of proficiency. Special operations training provides initial qualification in detail missions that require advanced flight operations skills. Examples include: mountain flying, over-water flight and external load operations.

Continuous intensive training and professional, safety oriented attitudes have enabled the "Duke" pilots to correctly react to all emergency situations encountered.


Sheriff’s Department helicopters are based at John Wayne Airport, Orange County and the equipment is maintained through a contract with ABLE (a jointly operated helicopter program for the Cities of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach). Costs for operational expense, fuel and mechanic’s services are shared in this contract. The Sheriff’s Department/ABLE partnership has a past record of providing these services at substantially less cost than vendor provided services (at an annual cost saving rate of about $400,000).

Mission Equipment

Flight crews operate two American Eurocopter AS350B2 (ASTAR) helicopters. Each is equipped with a Forward Looking Infra-Red thermal imaging device, a 50 million candle power Night Sun, a moving digital Thomas Brothers Mapping System, a Global Position System (GPS), a Public Safety Radio System for communications with all regional police and fire agencies and a complete public address/siren system.

Aircraft Capabilities

  • Maximum speed of 155 knots
  • Maximum range of 350 miles
  • Endurance of 3.5 hours
  • Takeoff weight capacity of 4961 pounds
  • Crew/passenger capabilities – six (6) personnel

Radio System

  • Law Enforcement Radio System
  • Capable of communicating with all Law Enforcement Agencies in Southern California
  • Motorola 800mhz Radio System
  • Capable of communicating with all Orange County Fire Departments
  • Public address/siren system
  • Capable of broadcasting from the helicopter to the ground

Moving Map System

GPS based moving map system that displays the helicopter's position on Thomas Brother's maps, topographical maps or aviation maps. Observers can input their destination and the system will display the helicopter's location plus the destination with course, distance and time to the destination.

Search Light

  • Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun – capable of producing fifty (50) million candlepower

Flight Operations

Sheriff's Department helicopters are scheduled to provide patrol services seven days a week. Flight crews work four ten-hour shifts, both days and evenings. The Aviation Support Unit provides coverage seven days a week. One aircraft performs scheduled patrol flights, while the other is available for scheduled maintenance and special assignments, as needed.

In addition to providing regular assistance to ground units, the flight crews initiate action as a result of their observations during patrol activities and respond to calls assigned by Sheriff's Dispatch. On over 64% of the calls they are the first unit on scene.

High speed vehicle pursuits jeopardize the safety of the suspect, the pursuing officer and the general public. Our helicopters have been able to take over pursuits from above, allowing ground units to slow down and receive directions as to the location and direction of the suspect. This procedure is most effective and has led to an increased arrest rate with a significant decrease in the likelihood of the suspect causing serious injury or damage to persons or property.

Typically the value of aerial surveillance occurs when a suspect flees on foot and may easily avoid detection by ground units. This was the case with an armed robbery suspect in Laguna Hills. When apprehended, he said he couldn't get to his car because he was trying to hide from the helicopter circling overhead.

Helicopter services have proven beneficial in many other activities as well. Our helicopters have provided assistance at aircraft crashes, giving first aid and emergency transport for survivors and directing ground units to the scene. Some other examples include: In September of 2006 Air Support Deputies discovered marijuana plants growing in the Silverado Canyon area. Narcotics Investigators and Deputies removed and air lifted out approximately 3800 marijuana plants, which had a street value of 3.7 million dollars.

Also, in September of 2006 Air Support Deputies discovered marijuana plants growing near the Stoneridge Estates community in Mission Viejo during a patrol mission. The crew relayed the information to Narcotic's Investigators. Over the next two days the Investigators and Deputies removed and air lifted out approximately 18,000 to 20,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of 12.5 million dollars. The Orange County Sheriff's Department received a 2006 National Marijuana Eradication award for their efforts. Members of the Sheriff's Department traveled to Washington D.C. in January of 2007 to receive the award.

Our flight crews are able to rapidly transport members of a bomb squad or other specialized personnel (SWAT, Dive Team, and Canines) to the scene of an incident. We can also provide an aerial platform for personnel to view and assess fires and other disasters, assist with fire suppression by the use of a water dropping bucket and provide aerial evacuation from high rise structures during fires or other emergency situations.

Aviation Support Contact Number: (949) 252-5257.