MD Helicopters in Mesa delivered Wednesday what could be the first of 40 high-tech helicopters to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to help stop illegal drug flows.
The $4.5 million MD Explorer helicopter is the most technologically advanced in the DEA air fleet and comes equipped with a hoist, high-power searchlight, day-and-night TV camera and advanced radio with an array of frequencies to talk to other law enforcement agencies.
“It’s a jack of all trades,” said William Brown, special agent in charge of the DEA aviation division.
The DEA’s fleet of 106 aircraft includes 13 helicopters dating back to the Vietnam War era and is in need of updating, he said.
Under the DEA’s contract with MD Helicopters, the agency could buy up to 39 more of the twin-engine Explorers, but future purchases will depend on funding by Congress.
“We are under financial constraints, but if we are fortunate enough to receive funding for additional aircraft, helicopters are high on our priority list,” Brown said.
Among the duties the Explorer will perform are surveillance, command-and-control operations, tracking of illegal drug shipments and smugglers, transporting of seized drugs and prisoners and medical evacuations, he said.
The machine also will be available for antiterrorism operations in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security. The DEA is part of the Department of Justice but conducts some missions for homeland security and other federal agencies, Brown said.
In addition to the helicopter’s ability to perform numerous functions, the DEA liked its NOTAR, no-tail-rotor system, which makes the aircraft quieter and safer.
“When you’re putting a helicopter down in a field where there might be a lot of people running around on the ground, you don’t want a tail rotor that can be really dangerous,” Brown said.
MD Helicopter chief executive Henk Schaeken sees the federal government as potentially a major buyer of the Explorer, which has primarily been sold to foreign customers so far. The DEA machine is the first the company has sold to a federal agency, he said.
“I really feel the future of this helicopter is in the U.S.,” he said. “A lot of federal agencies are using older military aircraft that have been in use for many years and even decades and are at the end of their life spans.”
He said the Explorer is an ideal replacement aircraft because its twin engines are powerful enough to carry advanced radio and camera equipment that are becoming more important in law enforcement operations.
If the DEA exercises all of its purchase options, the order could have an impact on production and employment at MD’s Falcon Field plant.
The company, which has about 300 employees, is producing helicopters for the civilian and law enforcement markets at a rate of about 40 a year, Schaeken said. Both production and employment declined following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent economic downturn, but orders are picking up, he said.
“We’re anticipating we will add people this year,” he said.