OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In a small building within the burgeoning Wheeler District, some of the city's most valuable policing equipment and personnel can be found.
Home to the Oklahoma City Police Department's Air Support Unit, or Air 1, most residents have likely heard the helicopters over their neighborhoods or have seen them while on their commute, but some common misconceptions exist as to what their mission is.
"We absolutely do zero traffic enforcement with our aircraft," said Lt. Mike Jackson, commander of the unit. "We don't go and sit over people's houses and look in their windows just for the sake of doing it."
Jackson said the police are not in the "spy business."
"We're doing nothing but supporting our ground units," he said. "The boots on the ground, we take care of those guys."
It's in that support role that the 11-member unit works day and night to serve the citizens of the city and maintain the safety of their fellow officers through the best view in town.
Working the skies since the early 1970s, the unit is broken down into two 10-hour shifts that begin with an exhaustive inspection of the expensive aircraft.
"Everything on that aircraft, they look over before every shift. That goes for the day guys, that goes for the night guys," Jackson said.
Purchased nearly five years ago for more than $3 million each, the two helicopters look brand new, and that's important, Jackson said.
"We are very diligent knowing what the investment is," he said "That's vital to me as the unit commander that I know those aircraft, I know what our investment is. We're going to take care of them long term."
Following inspection, each shift engages in at least one mission, which can be up to two hours of flight time each day, a necessity for a city with the footprint as large as Oklahoma City.
During the missions, a two-man crew checks on a list of areas, ranging from water treatment facilities, airports, to communications related sites, or "things that you just want to keep an eye on," Jackson said.
While assigned a set of locations, the officers are also available for any requests on the ground, whether it's a pursuit, a missing person or anything else that it be advantageous to have the eyes in the sky.
After making the rounds, the aircraft is brought back to the hangar, where the team transitions to more of an on-call role for officers on the streets. Pilots are limited in the number of hours of flight time each day, because of the potential fatigue that can set in from operating the aircraft.
"Flying a helicopter is probably the hardest thing that you'll do," Jackson said. "You have both feet that are working. Both hands are moving, working. Your eyes are constantly scanning. You're listening to the radio. So, you're using just about every sense that you have to fly that and to keep it in the air."
In addition to the focus on safety, operating the helicopters is expensive and the unit is cognizant of that.
"We don't just go out and fly them just for the sake of flying them. The cost of doing business is about between $450, $500 an hour," Jackson said.
Already outfitted with what most would consider high-tech tools, the two helicopters will soon be outfitted with $1.7 million in new equipment that will expand their capabilities. Included in the overhaul are new infrared cameras and new "moving map systems," The Oklahoman reported.
The same technology seen on some television station helicopters, the system allows for a real-time overlay of maps over video, which will allow the crew to better communicate to units on the ground where they need to be.
"The new mission equipment will provide us, we will actually move into the 21st century with equipment. It will be that dramatic of an increase in what we do and how we can see," Jackson said.
Jackson said the unit is always looking for ways to expand their mission and provide more service to the citizens of Oklahoma City and that's set to happen soon as they will begin working with the Oklahoma City Fire Department in rescue efforts.
Flooding from this year's spring storms kickstarted the effort as fire crews dealt with a number of high-water rescues on city streets and homes. After installing additional equipment and training, the new partnership could start as early as the end of the year.
Those efforts to go above their typical roles are part of the unit's way of showing they know how much the taxpayers of the city have invested, Jackson said.
"We look for ways to always expand our missions to get more for the citizens, what they've invested in us. We understand that this type of unit is an investment, for not only the department, but the city as a whole. We take that very seriously," he said.
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com