Kern County Sheriff’s Office–
On Monday morning, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told The News Review that he was pleased to announce that two new helicopters have been purchased for patrols and searches.
Its manufacturers call it the Airbus H125. Locals, however, refer to it as “the squirrel.”
Capable of zipping from one county border to the other at speeds of 150 mph and an air time of two and a half hours, it’s one of two $3 million helicopters Kern law enforcement unveiled Thursday in a continued effort to replace its aging fleet.
The “squirrels” will assist with foot and vehicle pursuits, searches for missing persons, recovery of vehicles, surveillance, and “first-at-scene” support during emergencies. They will replace the county’s two MD500s, purchased in 1986.
“I try to tamper it down, but I’m excited,” said Lt. Joel Swanson of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office Air Support. “I couldn’t wait for this day to happen.”
Spanning 8,100 square miles with terrains that rise to 8,000 feet, Kern County’s especially volatile topography can make it a constant danger for pilots who need to navigate extreme weather.
While purchased as top-of-the-line helos at the time, Sheriff Donny Youngblood said the two old choppers have each since been flown 15,000 hours — a long life in helicopter years. They’re often out of commission for long stretches during repairs. In some cases, parts are no longer available for replacement.
“They’ve got to a point where we couldn’t get parts, and they were down a lot more than they were flying,” Youngblood said.
With a take-off time that’s minutes faster than their predecessors and far better performance, Youngblood said it’s like having “10 deputies on the street,” adding that the new choppers will shrink response times and keep authorities safe in inclement weather.
“We operate in a challenging environment with hot summers over 100 degrees, cold winters with temperatures below freezing,” Swanson said. “There’s no place that we go to in this county that we can’t handle.”
A closer look shows that the state-of-the-art chopper has an extended cabin, autopilot functions, and a digital interface. Pilots said it feels like a luxury Uber ride compared to the older choppers.
“It’s capable of plucking someone out of the river, it’s capable of in the middle of the night going into an area that is completely dark, and you have lost hunters or hikers, using the flare, which works off of body heat, you can find people,” Youngblood explained.
According to Airbus, the helicopter’s manufacturer, this particular model makes up 80% of the global single-engine helicopter market and has the highest certified modifications available.
Youngblood said the crafts are familiar sights in the state’s hangars and tarmacs of law enforcement.
The purchase of the two was first confirmed in a March 2022 news release, following a vetting process that included numerous flight demonstrations in 2020 and 2021. The second helicopter is expected to arrive in the next few months. Youngblood said KCSO plans to downsize its fleet to defray the outright cost of the helicopters, hopefully.
“We are thrilled to welcome the Kern County Sheriff’s Office to the Airbus family,” Ron Kelley, airborne law enforcement segment manager at Airbus Helicopters, said in a news release.
Aside from double the horsepower and air conditioning — a big issue in the summertime when in-cabin temperatures can reach 117 degrees — the most significant difference in these from older models is the heat-sensor cameras fixed to the front of their noses.
“I was in a helicopter with them a couple of years ago, and we had a suspect in Wasco out in the middle of nowhere, hiding,” Youngblood said. “He was in a metal corrugated building, and from about three or four miles away, using the flare (camera), you could see his body in the building, just from the heat of his body.”
Pilots can pick out the color of someone’s shirt from the screen on their center console or whether someone needs to wash their car.
“They can tell if someone throws a cigarette down,” Youngblood added.