Heroes in the sky: JSO helicopters find criminals, save lives

Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has 12 pilots, 3 choppers ready to go at all times

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Whether it’s an armed robbery, a police chase or a missing person search, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s aviation unit is often not far behind.

JSO has a fleet of three Bell helicopters that launch at all hours of the day from its hangar at Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport in Arlington.

“When we launch on a call we try to get out within 7 minutes of (the) call,” said Officer Lou Ferreira, the chief pilot for the unit.

News4Jax requested to fly with the air unit because viewers often ask us about police helicopters hovering over their neighborhoods.

Within minutes of our first flight, Ferreira and his assistant chief pilot, Officer Carl Oder, received an emergency call.

Patrol officers on the street needed help in finding a missing man, whose mother said he was suicidal. It was reported that the man was on a motor scooter and wanted to harm himself.

The air unit did a systematic grid search -- the pilot flying and the co-pilot looking for the man. The quest ended well, with officers on the ground finding the missing man and getting him the help he needed.

“Our day ranges from missing persons to suicidal people to pursuits to robberies,” Ferreira said.

“Your job is not always just to catch the bad guy but also to help people, citizens that are in need of help,” Oder added. “You feel really good when that happens.”

JSO has 12 pilots who share the law enforcement agency's three helicopters. All are sworn police officers who used to work the streets, getting flight training by other officers within the JSO air unit.

“We are very lucky to be here,” Oder told us with pride. “Extremely lucky to be here.”

JSO Air Unit calls 

From Jan. 1- Aug. 25

514 property checks
176 missing persons
100 traffic stop assists
62 robberies
46 suicides
43 burglaries
39 shootings

Source: Jacksonville Sheriff's Office

With a top speed of 150 miles per hour, and the ability to land just about anywhere, the helicopters are a big asset to not only JSO but the community.

The pilots showed how they can land in a small “keyhole” if necessary. Their skills and the choppers’ maneuverability make a big difference on difficult missions.

“We have a better angle, we can see rooftops, long distances down roadways, in between buildings and trees,” Oder explained.

For example, video from 2018 shows a JSO chopper blocking two burglary suspects from getting away from officers on the ground in Arlington.

And, with miles of waterways throughout Jacksonville, the pilots can often get to marine incidents first. The pilots told us stories of rescuing stranded boaters and spotting swimmers in distress.

In 2012, a pilot jumped out of a helicopter to save a drowning and combative woman in the Intracoastal Waterway, near Atlantic Boulevard.

Air Unit Pilot Stephen Vaughan used his personal GoPro camera to capture the footage as he calmed the woman down and kept her afloat until she was picked up by a police boat.

Beachgoers routinely see JSO choppers flying over the coast. The pilots said they’re monitoring water conditions, looking for distressed swimmers or boaters and keeping an eye on sharks.

“This is an area we get called to a lot during the summer afternoons,” Oder said, as the helicopter hovered over the Mayport jetties. “The calls are for people that are either knocked off their jet ski or they go under.”

It’s a team operation to keep the unit running up to speed, with an excellent safety record.

“We keep everything around here operating,” said Ronald Battles, the director of aviation maintenance. “Our pilots are great here. We have a great team. I’ll say that. This is my 25th year.”

Two staff flight mechanics work to maintain and inspect the aircraft, so they are ready at a moment's notice for various reasons like:

  • Deploying the dive team
  • Assisting the SWAT team
  • Reconnaissance 
  • Getting aerial photography of crime scenes
  • Emergency evacuations

And something you may not know: JSO has helicopter pads on top of the Police Memorial Building and the jail.

It’s a special group, a family, that these officers said they feel privileged to be a part of.

“You can go home and sleep at night saying, ‘We found the 88-year-old woman that was in danger,’" Oder said. “You go home, and you feel good about that.”

Officers say they want to stay in touch with the community and make that a part of what they do. They say they love showing school children the helicopters and want the community to know they’re here to help. 

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