🔒 Crime Choppers: Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s new high-tech helicopters take flight – WJXT News4JAX

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Vic Micolucci, I-Team reporter, anchor
Vic Micolucci, I-Team reporter, anchor
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They’re the eyes in the skies – whether it’s a police chase, manhunt, or missing person – the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office deploys its aviation unit to help.
At 875 square miles, Jacksonville is the largest city in the continental United States. JSO just started flying two new high-tech helicopters, which its pilots say will help them catch criminals faster and help those who need it the most. News4JAX was given the exclusive opportunity to fly day and night with air patrol units to show you.
“All units. Responding to a 21 residence in progress. Unknown individuals attempting to break in through the front door,” we hear 911 dispatch say while we are flying high above the city.
“We got a burglary to a residence in progress. We’re gonna go to that call right now,” the pilot responds.
Calls like that can come in at any time and JSO’s helicopters can get there in minutes – flying at 130 to 140 miles per hour.
“I’ve got the camera on him. Follow him — that house right there,” the pilot says.
While the air unit responds, 911 Dispatch is sending out patrol officers. From the air and on the ground, they work together to make sure anyone inside the house stays safe.
“Making contact,” said the pilot.
It turned out this call was a false alarm. There was no one breaking in and the resident who called 911 was safe. But officers treat every mission like it is life or death.
“We definitely get to help people and that’s the whole idea here,” said Chief Pilot Officer Lou Ferreira.
“I just love doing what I’m doing,” said Assistant Chief Pilot Officer Carl Oder.
We went airborne with officers Ferreira and Oder in the cockpit, and they are two of JSO’s 12 pilots and three mechanics based at Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport.
News4JAX has flown with them before – showing you how pilots rescued a woman from the Intracoastal, and how they’ve helped patrol officers spot and then stop suspect.
RELATED: Heroes in the sky: JSO helicopters find criminals, save lives | Timeline of events following shooting of Deputy Joshua Moyers, leading to arrest of Patrick McDowell
Today, the agency has two new helicopters — which are significantly better in missions during the day and night.
“A lot of our calls are missing persons. We tend to locate them pretty easily with the new aircraft,” said Fereira.
The technology was getting dated and they wanted to keep up with the times. So, JSO sold two of its three older models and bought two brand new Bell 407s – nearly $12 million for both.
“It is a lot of money but when you are that person that’s out there in the water and you’re by yourself and there’s no one that can get to you, where the ones that can get to you, it’s worth it,” said Ferreira.
The new choppers have the best technology including autopilot in case of an emergency or bad weather, infrared cameras that can detect heat day or night- even footprints. JSO asked News4JAX to keep some of the other capabilities confidential, so criminals don’t know every tool in the toolbox.
“The technology is now much better, much cleaner, much clearer, the camera’s a lot better,” said Oder.
“We can see threats before they can,” said Ferreira about officers on the ground. “And if there’s someone coming around the corner, we can spot that for them.”
The new high-tech helicopters are especially helpful in the dark of night – something we witnessed from the air firsthand.
“88 (battery) in progress. Edgewood Avenue North,” we heard dispatch say while we flew along on a night patrol with JSO’s air unit.
“We’re going to a call right now, domestic disturbance, sounds like a girlfriend trying to run a boyfriend over with a car,” explained Ferreira.
It was a high priority call – one where every second counts – and the “Airhawk”, the pilots’ name for the helo, arrived first on the scene – as it was already airborne for the night patrol.
“Five, Zone Five. Be on the lookout for a white Equinox driven by a bravo foxtrot,” said dispatch.
The suspect is armed and dangerous.
“Charges are gonna be aggravated battery. She’s known to be a signal zero (armed) with a knife and a gun,” said a patrol officer on the ground.
Within minutes – air and ground officers spotted the suspect and pulled her over. From the air, the helicopter pilots used the new infrared camera and a spotlight to guide police on the ground as they move in for the arrest.
“Yeah, we’re gonna keep them lit up. They’ve got to suspect out of the car right now. It’s like they’re doing a felony, felony stop,” said Ferreira. “Everything’s good and hopefully the victim is okay. Fire Rescue is down here and with the victim and hopefully the victim’s alright.”
Every mission is important. Likely the longest continuous mission in the 5-year history of the air unit happened this past fall when Investigators say an ex-Marine, Patrick McDowell, shot and killed Nassau County Sheriff’s Deputy Joshua Moyers and then shot and injured a police K-9.
“It sticks out with you because of the efforts,” Oder said while getting emotional about Deputy Moyers. “What we went through to make this mission happen to help him.”
JSO assisted Nassau County with around-the-clock air support for the manhunt for McDowell that included both surveillance from above and flying with snipers.
It took five days, but McDowell was captured in a joint effort with SWAT, K-9s, drones and helicopters.
We checked the flight log from JSO’s Aviation Unit from April 2021 to April 2022 and found pilots flew 1,753.6 total hours. During that time, they were involved with 192 arrest and finding 244 missing people. Pilots also responded to a number of other incidents including boat crashes, kidnappings and escaped inmates.
No matter the mission, the JSO pilots said they’ll do what they can, however they can, and will continue watching from high above.
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