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Air Support Bureau

Air Support Bureau cockpit

The Sheriff's proposal for a helicopter support unit was approved by the Board of Supervisors 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 Air Support Bureau is equipped with five helicopters: two AS350B3e “AStar” patrol helicopters, one AS350B2 AStar patrol helicopter, and two UH-1H “Huey” medium lift helicopters. The first AStar arrived in March of 2005 and the second in March of 2006. In 2014, the two Hueys were obtained at no cost to the Sheriff’s Department by utilizing the military surplus program.  These helicopters are all technologically advanced and have enhanced the missions of Air Support Bureau since their inception.

Both Hueys and two of the AStars are equipped with Goodrich external hoists for use in the Aviation Support Bureau’s Search and Rescue Program.  This program was started nearly four years ago and is Advance Life Support and Tactical Medicine accredited.  Since then, both Huey Helicopters known as “Duke 6” and “Duke 7” have conducted over 300 remote rescues. Additionally, all five Sheriff Helicopters are capable of wildland firefighting and the Hueys have been fitted with 375 gallon Simplex external belly tanks to aid in that endeavor.  The Aviation Support Bureau deployed to the 2018 Holy Fire and dropped over 50,000 gallons of water to protect lives, property, and county infrastructure.


The Aviation Support Bureau is staffed by a Lieutenant, two Sergeants, eight Deputy Sheriffs (including two who are licensed paramedics), one Santa Ana Police Officer, one Telecommunication Engineer III, and two inspector helicopter mechanics.  Each pilot holds a FAA Airline Transport Pilot or a Commercial Pilot's Certificate with a rotorcraft-helicopter rating. These highly qualified personnel, supported by an experienced management team of senior staff officers, provide a professional and safety oriented Air Support Bureau. In addition, the Bureau has over 50 volunteer Professional Services Responders (PSR) and Reserve Deputies who assist with staffing Search & Rescue and Patrol aircraft.  All are seasoned law enforcement veterans, with an extensive range of aviation and law enforcement experience. 


The 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 Bureau 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.


The Sheriff’s Department helicopters are based at John Wayne Airport, Orange County and are maintained by a crew of 2 FAA certified inspector helicopter mechanics and a mission payload telecommunications engineer. The Aviation Support Bureau recently incorporated their two previously contracted aircraft mechanics into full-time county employees.  Our team is highly skilled and dedicated to providing exceptional service to our helicopters, staff, and the County of Orange.

Helicopters are swapped in and out of maintenance as required to maintain currency based on calendar year or number of hours flown in each of the 5 helicopters. The intricate mechanical aspects of maintaining a helicopter fleet ranging from 1974 UH-1 Hueys to AS350 B3e’s is mainly possible using the combined knowledge of almost 90 years between our 2 mechanics.

Mission Equipment

Patrol flight crews operate two Airbus AS350B3e (ASTAR) helicopters, and one AS350B2 helicopter.  Each is equipped with an extremely high-resolution color/low light camera and a Forward Looking Infra-Red thermal imaging device. Each mission payload also includes a high-intensity, fully automated, multi-mission searchlight capable of linking to the camera, a digital “moving map” 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 5225 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

Aerocomputers 6000 Ultichart GPS based moving map system that displays the helicopter's position on digital map system, topographical maps or aviation maps. Tactical Flight Officers can input their destination and the system will display the helicopter's location plus the destination with course, distance and time to the destination. Additionally, once coordinates are entered into the moving map system, it will automatically slew the camera and searchlight to the intended target. This technology gives the aircrew a tactical advantage allowing them to begin working the call before they get on scene enhancing officer safety and protecting life and property.

Search Light

Trakka Systems A800 – capable of producing 22,500 lumens and provides a selection of 6 different filter options to reduce the glare from the fog, snow or moisture and can enhance natural color in the target field. This system is operated manually or slaved to the camera with the touch of a button. Once slaved to the camera, the searchlight follows wherever the camera is targeted by the TFO.

Flight Operations

The Aviation Support Bureau is responsible for aerial support of Law Enforcement and Fire/Rescue personnel during routine and high-risk operations.  Patrol Helicopter “Duke 1” provides 24/7 helicopter coverage to all Sheriff’s patrol jurisdictions, including the city of Santa Ana.

Duke 1 aircraft regularly conducts self-initiated activities while on patrol flights, and assists ground units on calls for service by Sheriff's dispatch.  They direct ground units in the apprehension of fleeing suspects, and participate in over 300 high-speed pursuits a year.  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(s). This procedure is most effective and has led to an increased arrest rate with a significant decrease in the likelihood of the suspect(s) causing serious injury or damage to persons or property. 

In addition to Patrol Operations, Search and Rescue, and Aerial Firefighting, the Aviation Support Bureau personnel are also trained, equipped, and ready for specialized missions such as SWAT insertions to include fast rope, SWAT aerial shooting, remote K9 insertions, and offshore Dive Team insertions. 

The Aviation Support Bureau has also implemented policy and is the overseeing authority for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program.  OCSD currently has 7 UAVs, and 13 current and qualified remote pilots.