Joel Swanson, Lieutenant
Air Support Unit
Kern County Sheriff's Office
Air Support Unit
1350 Norris Road
Phone: (661) 391-7500
The Kern County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit consists of airborne assets in the form of three fixed wing airplanes and five helicopters. Various missions are flown daily which may include surveillance flights, administrative transport, search and rescue missions, and law enforcement patrol. Regardless of the mission type, the Kern County Sheriff’s Air Support unit is committed to supporting all public safety agencies within Kern County, the State of California, and the U.S. Federal Government. The unit strives to maintain a constant state of readiness as an airborne asset to assist all those in need regardless of the time, day or night, civilian or sworn. The unit’s goal is to support ground personnel in all operations and to make sure all those involved make it home safely. Most importantly, the unit has the distinct honor of assisting the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and its members in their daily commitment to work in partnership with our community to enhance the safety, security, and quality of life for the residents and visitors of Kern County through professional public safety services.
In 1972, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office started the Air Support Unit with the purchase of a brand new Bell 47 helicopter. Bell 47 helicopters were used extensively by the U.S. Army during the Korean War for medical evacuation of soldiers wounded in combat. This little helicopter is seen in the opening credits of the 1970‘s hit TV series “MASH“. The Sheriff’s helicopter, affectionately nicknamed “Little Hal” after local reporter Hal Lafoon, flew patrol missions until 1975. In 1975, Little Hal crashed while patrolling the Kern River Canyon when it struck electric aerial wires inside the mouth of the canyon. The helicopter was destroyed but, thankfully, both crewmembers survived.
Following the destruction of the Bell 47, the department purchased a Hughes 500C. This helicopter flew until 1978 when the Air Unit was deactivated due to the lack of funding. In 1984, the Air Unit was reinstated. A Bell 206B, commonly known as the Jet Ranger, was leased and used until 1987 at which time the department purchased two new MD 500E helicopters equipped with Spectrolab SX-16 searchlights.
The new MD 500E helicopters, upgraded and enhanced versions of the Hughes 500C, are still being flown today. These two helicopters, although over 30-years-old, have been maintained by a dedicated staff of aircraft mechanics lead by Adam Valdez, Supervisor of Aircraft Maintenance. Due to meticulous maintenance, they still fly the skies over Kern County.
In 1987 the Sheriff’s Office seized a Cessna Turbo Centurion T-210N fixed wing airplane through the asset forfeiture process during a narcotics investigation. It is still in use today for investigative operations and administrative transport.
In 1990 the department purchased two FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) thermal imagers for the helicopters. Even though they are no longer considered state-of- the art imagers, they are still used by the unit and are invaluable tools used in the apprehension of criminals and surveillance operations. These FLIR units will eventually be replaced with the latest thermal imaging systems which offer better capabilities.
In 1997, the Sheriff’s Office obtained two Bell OH-58A+ helicopters from the United States Department of Defense, through the California Governor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning. The military equivalent to the civilian Bell Jet Ranger, these two helicopters were in excellent condition having served with the Army National Guard in South Dakota. They were obtained at no cost to the County of Kern. Each of these helicopters were re-furbished, in-house, and painted using the Air Unit’s white, green, and gold paint scheme. Like both previously purchased MD 500E helicopters, these OH-58A+ helicopters are meticulously maintained. They also use the same Spectrolab SX-16 searchlights and FLIR imaging systems. One MD 500E and one OH-58A+ are currently outfitted with an external load hook and are used for long-line operations. Each year, hundreds of thousands of marijuana plants are removed from illegal marijuana grows, usually in the mountainous areas of Kern, using the helicopters equipped with the external hooks.
In 2001, the department received a state grant from the Governor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning to purchase a brand-new Cessna Turbo Stationair T-206H fixed wing aircraft. This airplane is used for investigative operations and is equipped with the latest in surveillance equipment, including a GyroCam broadcast quality camera with night vision capabilities.
In 2006 the unit began using the latest in night vision goggles, ANVIS-9, for nighttime helicopter operations. These goggles, also used by the four US military branches, were purchased with a grant from the office of the US Department of Homeland Security. These goggles afford the aircrews with enhanced safety and capabilities that were not enjoyed before.
In 2007, Sheriff Donny Youngblood approached the Kern County Board of Supervisors and requested the funds to purchase a new medium lift helicopter. Sheriff Youngblood saw the need for a larger helicopter with more power and lift capabilities than the four smaller helicopters currently in the unit’s inventory. Bell’s Huey II was chosen to fill the medium lift roll. This helicopter allows more personnel to be transported at one time and is equipped with a Goodrich external hoist used for rescue operations. It is also equipped with a “fast-rope” system which allows for quick insertion of the Sheriff’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. The Huey II, because of better performance in high altitude and high temperature operations, offers more capabilities and safety for the aircrew and personnel involved.
In 2012, the Sheriff’s Office obtained a twin Turbo Commander 690A to assist with ever increasing demands for administrative transport and fixed wing missions.
In 1998, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit began an in-house flight training program. Sworn deputies assigned to the Air Unit, full time, are offered the chance to obtain their private and commercial pilot certificates in helicopters. As of 2008, six sworn deputies have received in-house flight training by one of our former instructors, civilian Chief Flight Instructor Berto Penaloza, or retired Sheriff’s Deputy and Flight Instructor Doug Ely. History was made in 1998 when Berto joined the unit with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) certificate. In 2003, Deputy Ely again made unit history by becoming the first sworn deputy to become a flight instructor.
Before 1998, Sheriff’s Deputy Norm Canby, who had received his private helicopter pilot license from a civilian flight school, was the first to be trained in-house for his commercial helicopter pilot license. Deputy Canby was followed by Deputy Doug Ely, Sheriff’s Sergeant Randy Turman, Sheriff’s Sergeant Jess Baker, Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Caughron, Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Austin, and Sheriff’s Deputy John McAdoo. Sheriff’s Deputy CJ Martin made history becoming the unit’s first twin engine flight instructor. Deputy Ely and Berto Penaloza have now retired and Deputy Tim Caughron has taken over the Chief Flight Instructor position.
Air Support Unit - Full Time Crewmembers
Unit Supervisor/TFO - Lt. Joel Swanson
Fixed Wing Pilot & Instructor Pilot - Sr Deputy Robert Riggs
Chief Flight Instructor/Helicopter Pilot - Deputy Tim Caughron
Command Helicopter Pilot/TFO - Deputy Kevin Austin
Command Helicopter Pilot/TFO - Deputy Dan Gates
TFO - Deputy Aaron Mendez
TFO - Bakersfield Police Officer Steven Brewster
Air Support Unit - Part Time Crewmembers
Command Pilot/Flight Instructor - CJ Martin
Air Support Unit - Aircraft Mechanics
Adam Valdez - Supervisor of Maintenance/A&P Mechanic
Christian Adan – A&P Mechanic
Jeff Nunes - A&P Mechanic
Aircraft & Equipment
Fixed Wing Aircraft
Cessna Turbo Centurion T-210 N
Cessna Turbo Stationair T-206H
Turbo Commander 690A
Two- MD 500E
Two- Bell OH-58A+
Bell Huey II
Spectrolab SX-26 searchlights
FLIR Systems 2000AB thermal imager and monitors
FLIR Systems 8500 thermal imagers with Macro-Blue 12 inch Monitors
Churchill Mapping Systems