NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A military surplus transfer has afforded area law enforcement agencies a helicopter valued at $280,000 for crime-fighting.
The 1968 Bell OH 58C Kiowa, an ex-Army helicopter transferred—not purchased—from Pitt County, will join the fleet of the Southeastern Airborne Law Enforcement Unit, or SABLE, which the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) operates with partners including the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, Leland Police Department and the Pender County Sheriff’s Office.
“The SABLE unit provides four key elements to the total force: speed in response, a visible police presence, technology, and increased officer safety,” program literature states. “SABLE delivers a situational awareness to the officers on the ground in any situation.”
The helicopters, equipped with infrared cameras, high-power searchlights and night-vision goggles for personnel, have intervened in robberies, followed vehicles attempting to flee police, assisted with traffic control, and searched for missing persons, among other missions.
The ’68 Bell is the third helicopter—all are the same model—that SABLE has acquired since 2006, but the fleet number will remain at two. The city says the new addition will replace a previously acquired model.
Despite its age, the Bell is in fine shape, said WPD Deputy Chief Marshall Williamson. Its turbine has just 1,200 hours on it—they’re normally good for 3,600 hours—and it recently got a $6,000 paint job, he said. It’s generally in better shape than the chopper it will replace.
According to WPD, SABLE has received its helicopters through a military surplus program at no cost to the city. Funding for SABLE comes mostly through grants supported by drug seizure money, but its partners also contribute. City of Wilmington spokeswoman Malissa Talbert said the city covers a portion of the program’s personnel costs.
SABLE’s budget for the current fiscal year is $308,292.
The City Council on Tuesday also approved receipt of an $84,819 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to purchase a set of new rotor blades for the other helicopter SABLE will use. The total cost for the parts, $90,286, required a $5,467 transfer from state drug-tax funds.