Law enforcement helicopter faces cutbacks


by Mike Watkiss & Sybil Hoffman

Bio | Email | Follow: @mikewatkiss3TV

Posted on May 22, 2013 at 10:45 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 22 at 4:50 PM

PHOENIX -- It's a full throttle, adrenaline-filled world where Phoenix police and fire team up working out of an extraordinary piece of machinery known as Phoenix Firebird #10.

"Cats and dogs living together right? You know what, it works surprising well," Phoenix police officer Gary Bucklin explained.

Each operation is meticulously coordinated and precisely choreographed with one basic goal.

"The number one reason this helicopter is in town is to save lives," Bucklin said.

"We want to hone our skills as much as possible," added Phoenix Fire Captain Bobby Dubnow.

The crew of Phoenix Firebird 10 recently invited 3TV's Mike Watkiss along for some of their training exercises, which are conducted in the dark of night over the unforgiving Sonoran desert.

It's training that's critical this time of year as crews average three to four flights a week.

"We can't even count how many folks that probably wouldn't have made it without had we not had this asset available to us," Bucklin explained.

We spent two days in full-gear so we could train along side the men of Firebird #10, simulating risky maneuvers both during the day and into the dead of night.

"We also use infrared, we do have night vision goggles available if we needed to but yeah, it's a different set of skills when you turn off the lights," Bucklin remarked.

But keeping Firebird #10 airborne isn't cheap, as Officer Bucklin points out, "I don't know how you put a dollar figure on a human life."

3TV confirms the city of Phoenix plans to reduce operating and maintenance costs by cutting back on flight hours during non-peak times and restructuring pilot training.

"This is a great way to remove people from the mountain but it's also a very dangerous way to remove people from the mountains so we need to practice this as much as possible," Captain Dubnow said.

During my two days with the firebird crews, I discovered first hand what it's like to be the one requiring a rescue.

As the beginning of training, they strapped me into a device that they call a screamer suit. I'm injured, I'm on the side of a mountain and these gentlemen have come to my rescue.

"We're going to have a trail line attached to you that will keep you from spinning, from swinging around, it's a very stable ride. You're going to have a good time," the team reassured me.

In a matter of seconds, I'm swept away in a secure harness and on my way to safety.

Phoenix believes the cutbacks will save the city $629,000.