Louisville’s lone police chopper grounded for nearly one-third of last year
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – There are six in Nashville and four in Memphis. Columbus, Ohio, owns a fleet of six. Lexington has two.
But for more than a decade in Louisville, the city’s police department has relied on a single helicopter to aid officers pursuing suspects, help find missing children and fly over robbery scenes.
Police officials acknowledged this spring they were considering buying a new chopper for $3.1 million, but talks stalled after the city was forced to increase its pension costs by $9 million.
“I’d love to have a second helicopter. I’d love to have three,” LMPD Chief Steve Conrad told Metro Council members in late May. “We could keep them flying and keep them busy all the time. The money just isn’t there to support it…”
The arrangement has left the department at times without air support, including after a Memorial Day weekend shooting at the Big Four Bridge last year. The helicopter was undergoing repairs when police responded to Waterfront Park.
During that incident, a WDRB News reporter heard a member of the police department complain aloud that the helicopter was down.
In fact, the chopper was out of service for nearly one-third of 2017, losing 108 days to repairs and maintenance, according to police data. That was up from 68 days the year before and the most since the aircraft missed 96 days in 2015.
In the last five years, the data shows, the fewest number of out-of-service days was 25 in 2013.
The helicopter is costing more to maintain, city records show. The repair and maintenance expenses over the last five years are, on average, more than twice as high as the previous five years, according to online data from Metro government’s Louisville Checkbook portal.
LMPD spent $283,500 on the helicopter during the 2018 fiscal year. That was down from $351,900 the year before and $384,800 in 2017, but well above the levels at the start of the decade, when the department routinely spent less than $200,000 per year.
By comparison, Metro Nashville’s department had just three days without a chopper last year, spokesman Lt. Mickey Yentes said.
“During this downtime, we reached out to the Tennessee Highway Patrol to provide assistance if needed,” he said.
But Louisville’s police department does not have a similar arrangement, spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said.
Although LMPD allowed WDRB News to interview and fly with members of the air unit earlier in the spring, the department declined to make officers available for this story because they are not decision makers, Halladay said.
The department also declined a request to interview Maj. Tim Burkett, commander of the special operations division, and instead provided a statement attributed to him.
It would be “ideal” to have more than one helicopter, Burkett said in the statement.
“However, with the current financial picture in Kentucky, we understand that it is not possible for us to either upgrade our helicopter to a newer model, or add a second one at this time,” he said. “We are committed to using the helicopter we have to its fullest potential. And we will always be open to opportunities that might afford us the chance to fund an additional helicopter.”
The department’s helicopter is an MD-500N model built in 2001. It crashed in 2006 during a training session near Billtown Road, dropping suddenly while hovering about five to 10 feet above the ground, WDRB reported.
Speaking at City Hall in May, Burkett said the department is looking at ways to have aerial backup when the helicopter is out of service. Because of the chopper’s unique capabilities – such as night vision – it’s not feasible to lease other types of helicopters, he said.
Drones also are not always practical either, Burkett told council members, because of Federal Aviation Administration rules that limit where and how high they can fly near Louisville International Airport and Bowman Field.
He acknowledged that “our situational awareness obviously dips down” when the helicopter isn’t available.
Also speaking to the council, Chief Conrad said LMPD has focused its flights on high-crime “hot spots” in the last six months, and since around early 2017 has aided 121 vehicle or foot pursuits; 80 robbery responses; 53 reports of missing children; and 52 shootings. In all, he said, it has helped in 184 arrests.
Conrad said the chopper was out of service for 107 of the previous 548 days, or about one out of every five days.
“Being up almost 81 percent of the time, or 80 ½ (percent), was pretty impressive,” he said.
Not having a second helicopter is a “huge concern,” said Metro Council President David James, a former LMPD officer.
“Many, many officers talk to me about it,” he said.
James said the council tries to fund the police department’s requests and noted that it recently authorized the purchase of an armored vehicle. But LMPD has not asked the council to provide money for a new helicopter, he said.
James suggested issuing bonds to help cover the cost of a new chopper may be one option.
“We are wearing out that one helicopter we have and increasing the costs of maintenance,” he said.