ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — An agency that’s provided air support to law enforcement across northern Illinois for almost 15 years is all but defunct and giving up its helicopters due to a lack of funding.
A half dozen of the surplus military helicopters once operated by Air-One are parked outside the Stephenson County Jail in Freeport.
Air-One assisted law enforcement agencies from the Chicago suburbs, Rockford, Winnebago County, Freeport and Stephenson County in cases of natural disaster, fires, search-and-rescues and manhunts.
The helicopters, which are allocated by the federal Law Enforcement Support Office, are “enormously expensive to operate, said Rockford Police Chief Dan O’Shea, who serves as president of the Air-One board of directors. The cost can be as much as $3,500 every hour they are in the air, he said.
For most of the organization’s history, funding came from federal grants and private donations.
Executive Director Mark Smith said that recently, most of Air-One’s approximately $600,000 annual budget came through the Cook County Homeland Security and Emergency Management agency. But funding dried up in late 2015 and since then Air-One has flown few missions.
“Without funding from the state or the federal government, no local law enforcement agency can afford them,” O’Shea said. “We can’t afford to store them, we can’t afford to maintain them, can’t afford to do anything with them because it’s too expensive.”
The federal government will transfer the helicopters to new agencies that can afford to operate them, O’Shea said.
Smith says shuttering the program would be “a real travesty.” He’s hoping a company or philanthropist will come forward to save it.
“The fact of the matter is that Air-One was the most efficient, economical helicopter search-and-rescue unit in the United States,” Smith said. “It ran not unlike a volunteer fire department where highly trained pilots and highly trained tactical flight officers would operate helicopters on an on-call basis for whatever department called on them.”