SPOKANE, Wash. - Air-1 is Spokane County's eye in the sky, one of only six accredited helicopters in the country, but for Spokane County Sheriff's deputies, the most important thing is the many lives the chopper has helped save over the last nine years.
To put it simply, Air-1 – a donated OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopter donated by the U.S. Army – helps catch the bad guys and keep the good guys safe. After almost a decade of operations on a shoe string budget, Air-1 has become an invaluable tool to the sheriff's office, a tool that has made the community a much safer place.
For the air crews that fly the helicopter, the rewards for their work come in many different forms.
"It's really helped us out in a lot of different avenues for law enforcement," Spokane Sheriff's Sergeant Dave Ellis said.
When dispatched, Air-1 is the first unit on scene more than half of the time, the advanced technology aboard allowing the crew to direct deputies on the ground to suspects they can see from the air. Through city streets and heavy brush, Air-1 tracks people who may never have been found.
"When we have burglaries we can get there quick, pursuits we can handle it, and being able to cover the large county is a lot easier by air," Ellis said.
One example of its usefulness in helping catch criminals was during the 2012 pursuit of Charlie Wallace, the man who shot and seriously injured Deputies Matt Spink and Mike Northway. Air-1 was called into action during the pursuit, keeping an eye on the fleeing Wallace as he sped north out of Spokane. Throughout the pursuit Air-1 kept up with Wallace until the end, when he crashed his stolen car into some jersey barriers and, with deputies approaching the car on foot, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
Though the crime fighting is exciting, there's another mission that's most important to these deputies.
"There's been a lot of rescues that have been really good but probablythe first one that sticks out in my mind is a missing 7 and 9 year old," Ellis said.
In January 2011, brothers Carson and Jordan were on a family hike near the Little Spokane River when they became separated from the rest of their group.
"I couldn't believe they were gone because they were right there just one second ago," their mother, Lisa Anselmomarnach, said.
After hours of searching by foot, calling, screaming, shouting and running, deputies needed another way to find the two boys.
"A lot of times in the past our only option is to hike in there and when you're covering remote areas, and time matters for these missing people that could take a long time," Ellis said.
For Jordan and Carson time was not on their side.
"I had actually slipped and fell into the river a little bit," Jordan remembered.
Soaking wet, in dropping temperatures, Jordan started to develop early signs of hypothermia.
And then there was a sound of hope, the beating sound of a helicopter above them.
"I was just too frozen to move at all ... I wanted to jump up and do jumping jacks to get their attention, but you just can't," Jordan said.
Because of the forward looking infrared system aboard Air-1, the air crew could pick up heat sources on the ground through the dense foliage and treeline, and that's how Air-1 found the two boys.
"It is sickening to think about their possible fate if that helicopter wass not available for the rescue," Lisa Anselmomarnach said.
"Rescues are great, especially when you can make it so it's a good outcome," Ellis said. "They said they were going to grow up to be future search and rescue members, so it was a nice rescue."
In desperate times, we all catch ourselves looking to the sky for miracles and for the Spokane County Sheriff's Office many times that miracle is Air-1.
"There has been a lot of lives saved, a lot of bad guys caught, and it's definitely shown it's value to the region," Ellis said.
The value of Air-1 expands farther than Spokane County, as it has been called out to support surrounding counties and was called upon to support search and rescue efforts during the Oso mudslide.
As if to underscore the importance of Air-1 to local law enforcement, earlier this summer the U.S. Army donated two more Kiowas to the program. One of the helicopters will be used as a backup aircraft when Air-1 is down for maintenance while the second airframe will be cannibalized for parts to keep the other two helicopters in the air.
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