The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office now has eyes in the sky -- and they come free to local taxpayers.
Sheriff P.J. Tanner showed his department's newly acquired helicopter, a 1971 Bell 206A, to the media Thursday. The chopper will be used to search for missing and endangered people, as well as criminals, Tanner said.
The Sheriff's Office received the helicopter three weeks ago as part of the U.S. Department of Defense's 1033 program, which distributes surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies without charge. The helicopter's only operational cost, fuel, is already covered in the Sheriff's Office current budget.
"United States Army" is printed on the side of the camouflage-green helicopter, but Tanner said the Sheriff's Office plans to paint it white. The helicopter should have at least 400 hours of flight time before it needs any costly work, Tanner said.
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"This is a 1971 helicopter, and it may not look pretty, but it's in excellent shape," Tanner said.
The helicopter will also be used during parades and events requiring crowd control, Tanner said.
The helicopter will be piloted by Rob Wright of Beaufort County Mosquito Control and co-piloted by David Galm of the Sheriff's Office Emergency Management Division.
The helicopter could be returned after three years.
"If it appears the helicopter is a tool we don't need, with added expenses, we will turn it back in to the program," Tanner said.
The helicopter would need to be equipped with avionics to be used at night or during severe weather, Tanner said. The Sheriff's Office will search for that equipment through the same defense program that delivered the helicopter, he added.
Fripp Island Sea Rescue executive officer Cliff Spann said the Sheriff's Office helicopter is particularly important in light of the Coast Guard's plan to close the Air Facility Charleston station Dec. 15. That station has provided helicopter search-and-rescue services in Beaufort County.
The Sheriff's Office's helicopter is not equipped to rescue people from the water, and Tanner emphasized there is no intention for it to be able to. But it will aid in water search efforts.
"(The Sheriff's Office's) helicopter doesn't replace what the Coast Guard may take away, but it helps minimize the negative effects," Spann said. "It's a wonderful asset to have in the county."
Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.
- Closure of Charleston Coast Guard air station delayed, Oct. 31, 2014