Moving across the horizon, an emerald green helicopter approached a patch of grass near the Springs Hills Church in Fulton on Thursday, whipping strong gusts of air against a group of spectators gathered nearby.
Tactical flight officers emerged from the copter seconds after landing, pulling a thick orange rope from the helicopter and quickly attaching it to one of the officers before the machine was air bound again.
The helicopter, bearing the words “Sonoma County Sheriff” in gold lettering, propelled the officer down to a nearby building. Seconds later, it rose once again, this time with Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano in tow, alongside the flight officer.
Thursday’s display was part of the agency’s ribbon-cutting for their new $5.5 million outfitted copter, Henry 1.
The sheriff’s helicopter program began in the 1960s and has since grown, carrying out an average of 900 missions annually, according to the agency’s website. Additionally, the aircraft helps local law enforcement agencies find fleeing suspects and fire crews dump water over flames.
“We do whatever we can do to make the county safer with the helicopter,” Giordano told the crowd once he was back on his feet.
Throughout the years, the helicopter and the skilled teams aboard have been credited with making harrowing rescues in some of the region’s most difficult terrains. They saved a family whose boat overturned in Tomales Bay in 2012 and, more recently, rescued a 46-year-old biker who fell down a 50-foot cliff in San Rafael’s China Camp State Park last month.
The new copter marks a hearty investment into the sheriff’s program, which at times has seen financial challenges.
Years ago, when county leaders were faced with shrinking budgets following the recession, the helicopter program was flagged as one that the county could cut, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbit said Thursday.
“We all decided, working together with the sheriff, that it was a valuable tool,” Rabbit said of the program.
The aircraft replaces the agency’s previous chopper, a Bell 407 model bought used from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008.
The 22-year-old helicopter, also named Henry 1, required costly maintenance, tallying more than $251,300 in upkeep fees last year alone. The office anticipated expenses would balloon to more than the helicopter’s resale value in the years to come, prompting them to look for other options.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last August signed off on the purchase for the new copter. The office planned to pay a bulk of the costs using state and federal asset forfeiture funds, or money and property confiscated during investigations. Federal grant money totaling $100,000 and loans will help pay for the remaining portion, the sheriff’s office said.
A group of about 100 spectators joined Thursday’s ceremony, including Capt. Mark Essick, the sheriff-elect, and former Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, who Giordano credited with storing the asset forfeiture funds over several years to make the helicopter purchase.
The crowd took turns peering into the 5-seater and taking pictures with the helicopter’s crew.
Lead pilot Paul Bradley said the helicopter is a newer version of the Bell 407 previously used by the department, making the layout familiar to him and other staff. The aircraft comes with an upgraded mapping system and a forward-facing infrared camera, which shaves off valuable seconds during operations, said Chris Haas, a flight officer.