By Karen Sloan
The Omaha World-Herald
OMAHA, Neb. — The Omaha Police Department's Vietnam War-era helicopter fleet is getting a major upgrade.
The City Council on Tuesday approved spending $2.67 million to purchase two new helicopters, which could be in the skies as early as next summer.
The new helicopters will provide many of the same features as the city's current fleet, said Sgt. Jeff Theulen, who oversees the Police Department's helicopter unit. But they will have one major advantage: They're new.
"The helicopters we have now are about 36 years old," Theulen said. "That's the biggest reason we are replacing them."
The six Bell helicopters that make up the existing fleet were donated by the military, and getting parts for the outdated models has become increasingly difficult, Theulen said. Two of those helicopters are used for parts, while the four others can fly, he said.
It's unclear what will happen to those helicopters once the new ones arrive.
Last year, the city made plans to purchase the two new helicopters in 2008, with a third to be added in 2010. The city had planned to sell its older helicopters to fund that final purchase. Theulen said it has not yet been decided whether those older helicopters will be sold or when.
Omaha added the helicopter unit 10 years ago, and it has received mixed reviews.
The helicopters have been used to rescue stranded people, track down criminals and aid in police pursuits. They also have cost millions and drawn criticism from some in the community who think the money would be better spent on ground-level policing. Residents in north Omaha have complained about noise from the helicopters.
Only Councilman Frank Brown, who represents north Omaha, voted against funding the new helicopters. He would not elaborate on why he voted against the purchase, but he has criticized the helicopter unit in the past for not including female and minority officers.
Theulen said policing from the sky offers unique benefits. At a maximum speed of 130 mph, his helicopters can't outpace a motorcyclist fleeing at 160 mph. However, Theulen said, a pilot doesn't have to stick to roads.
"The advantage isn't necessarily the speed, but the angles," he said.
Police also have said the helicopters have other benefits, such as hovering over traffic stops, conducting surveillance, tracking people on the ground with infrared cameras and reaching scenes before ground units.
The report on a recent efficiency study of the Police Department gave the helicopter unit high marks and recommended that the helicopters fly more often. It said the department does an "excellent job" deploying its helicopter resources.
Theulen said the department generally has just one helicopter in the air at a time. That probably won't change, but Theulen said the department plans to log more air time once the new helicopters arrive, though he doesn't yet know how much more.
The two new helicopters will be made by the same company that manufactured the current fleet -- Bell Helicopter Textron.
The city received two lower bids for the helicopters, but police officials decided that those did not meet the specifications. One company said it could provide the two helicopters for nearly $1 million less, but it did not provide the requested documentation of five other law enforcement agencies using the model. A second company entered a bid that was $930,000 less than the accepted bid, but officials said that model did not fly fast enough.
The typical cruising speed for the new Bell helicopters is about 127 mph, while the rejected model's is about 119 mph. The new helicopters will be slightly faster than the existing ones, Theulen said.
"We looked at what our speed is now, and we decided that we couldn't go any slower, especially not with the addition of Elkhorn," he said.
He said speed is important when the helicopter is out in an area like Elkhorn, then gets an urgent call to respond downtown.
The military program that donated the city's existing fleet no longer exists, Theulen said. And most used helicopters that are for sale have logged many hours in the air, which means the city would have to consider replacing them relatively soon.
Theulen said the model the city is purchasing is one of the most widely used by law enforcement. Parts will be readily available, he said.
Another benefit is that the new helicopters will fit into the city's helicopter hangar, which was not the case with all the helicopters included in the bids.
The new helicopters also will be similar to the current ones, which will make the transition easy for the unit's six pilots and two mechanics, Theulen said.
"It's extremely similar to what we have now, which means my guys will be able to jump right in without a lot of additional training," he said.
The new helicopters will be a little quieter than the current ones but will be about the same when it comes to fuel efficiency, he said.
Copyright 2007 Omaha World-Herald
Omaha PD getting new helicopters