Since 2018, the Erie County Sheriff’s helicopter has rescued 14 people, according to records released by the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office has cited rescues to justify buying a new $10 million helicopter. The records don’t indicate if any of the rescues saved people in life-threatening situations, however.
Here’s what records released pursuant to a Freedom of Information Law request from Investigative Post show:
- In 2021, the helicopter picked up two people from atop a grain elevator when one experienced a medical episode related to diabetes after the pair had climbed to the elevator’s roof, according to sheriff’s records and media reports.
- That same year, the helicopter found four kayakers in the Zoar Valley Gorge. They walked out on their own, with ground rescuers providing boots for one person and illuminating the trail.
- In 2020, the helicopter rescued two 17-year-old boys from the gorge, according to sheriff’s records and Undersheriff William Cooley, who said that rising water and steep terrain prevented ground crews, which typically respond to stricken people in the area, from reaching the boys.
- In 2018, the copter made three trips to ferry six uninjured ice fishermen to shore from Lake Erie, a relatively routine mission. In 2004, the copter brought nine anglers ashore whose ATV’s and sleds were retrieved through other means.
“A lot of times, we’ll do multiple rescues, ice fishermen,” retired pilot William Caffery told The Buffalo News in 2020. “And a lot of times, it’s the same ice fishermen over and over. I consider it job security.”
Aside from the sheriff’s aircraft, the closest helicopter capable of lifting people to safety is located at a U.S. Coast Guard station in Detroit. The response time is 90 minutes. In August, the Coast Guard chopper, en route home from a Rochester air show, picked up a boater after a catamaran capsized in Lake Erie. The sheriff’s helicopter also responded, with a boat picking up a second person who’d been aboard.
The sheriff’s office has cited rescues as a reason to buy a bigger, faster helicopter for $10 million while keeping the existing one, which the county bought in 2003 with $2.25 million in borrowed money. It is frequently down for repairs and maintenance and hasn’t flown since Sept. 28, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking website.
Departments elsewhere have switched to drones, including in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, where the sheriff has called helicopters “flying dinosaurs.”
“We’ve been involved in numerous search-and-rescue operations that have mitigated the loss of life, in many instances — too numerous to mention, quite frankly,” Cooley told Investigative Post in early September. “But they’ve all been cataloged.”
The catalog wasn’t easy to get.
Investigative Post requested flight logs and financial records for the department’s helicopter on June 27 under the state Freedom of Information Law. Public agencies have five days to respond. If more time is needed, agencies must explain why the deadline should be extended, with the law stating that documents should generally be released within 20 additional business days.
After denying the request in September on the grounds that disclosure of the records would endanger lives or safety, the department reversed course and produced records on Oct. 24, 119 days after being asked.
There are no penalties for breaking the Freedom of Information Law, despite a 2009 finding from the state Committee On Open Government that determined government has “very little incentive to comply with the law” and recommended that requesters forced to sue should be reimbursed legal costs when agencies lose. The taxpayer-funded committee only can issue advisory opinions, without any enforcement mechanism. At least 16 states, not including New York, require agencies to reimburse requesters for legal fees if they sue and prevail.
The department provided Investigative Post records after Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Sept. 29 proposed a 2024 budget that includes $1 million for a new helicopter. County legislators have until Dec. 7 to act on the request. The Legislature has scheduled a 6 p.m. hearing Thursday on Poloncarz’s budget proposal.
The existing helicopter has been used for 18 “demo flights/community events” this year, records show, but no rescues. Airborne for 131 hours since Jan. 1, it’s flown eight missions to assist sheriff’s deputies in 2023 and 73 in support of other agencies, none of which help pay for the helicopter.
The sheriff’s office says the helicopter has tracked 11 stolen cars in Buffalo this year and helped apprehend 15 people during those operations.
Training is at five-year high, with flight personnel this year spending 550 hours in training as of Sept. 1. In 2021, the flight crew spent 312 hours training, the second-highest total since 2018.
The crew includes one full-time pilot, two full-time pilots who also are flight officers, a part-time flight officer, a part-time maintenance technician and a part-time maintenance technician who is paid under a contract. The number of pilots has increased since 2018, when the unit had one full-time pilot and a second who worked on a per-diem basis.
Personnel costs aren’t clear. The sheriff’s office refused to provide names of pilots and others assigned to the department’s aviation unit, saying disclosure would endanger lives and safety, even though names and salaries of department employees are available at govsalaries.com.
In a letter accompanying the records, Capt. Neil C. Held wrote that the department has spent $476,150 on the helicopter unit so far this year. It’s not clear from the letter whether the amount includes salaries.
Investigative Post had requested maintenance and repair records dating to 2018, including the dates that maintenance and repairs were performed and the cost. The department provided a list of maintenance and repairs performed but did not provide invoices or billing records detailing costs.
The sheriff has no annual budgets or expenditures for its helicopter unit for years prior to 2023, Held wrote, nor does it have call logs for last year or this year showing how the helicopter has been used.
In September, Cooley gave Investigative Post a summary of maintenance and repair costs showing that the department spent more than $404,000 last year and had spent nearly $117,000 this year, nearly $360,000 less than what records provided in response to the formal records request show.