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Arizona DPS – Answering the Call Since 1962

Arizona DPS Cover

“Courteous Vigilance” – the motto of the Arizona Department of Public Safety Aviation Unit

Arizona DPS Bell 407 N54AZ sits awaiting a mission. Photo by Mark Bennett.
                                                     Arizona DPS Bell 407 N54AZ sits awaiting a mission. Photo by Mark Bennett.


Arizona is barely a hundred years old as a state. Law enforcement emerged from the Cowboys of centuries past, the likes of which include Burt Mossman and Wyatt Earp. Maybe you have never heard of Mossman, but his story figured large in the territory, before and after statehood, and helped shape what has become the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Like Earp, Burt Mossman spent time on both sides of the law, his time on the wrong side, however, was attributed more to a Mexican Captain who lost a duel with Mossman, ending up shot in the process. That event sent Mossman to a Mexican jail, from which he escaped to return to the Arizona Territory.

Mossman was later named the Sheriff of Navajo County, where in 1901 he became the first captain of the newly re-established Arizona Rangers. (The original organization had grown out of a militia formed in 1882.) Mossman, his two successors, and their men succeeded in ridding the state of large outlaw gangs, yet, the territorial legislature disbanded the Rangers in 1909. On Valentine’s Day 1912, Arizona became part of the Union as the final addition to the contiguous United States.

Over the years the role of statewide law enforcement was passed to a number of different agencies, each focused on their own areas of responsibility — the Arizona Highway Patrol, Law Enforcement Division of the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, and the Narcotics Division of the Department of Law.

In 1969 each state-wide agency was combined to become what is now the Arizona Department of Public Safety(AZDPS). Since their inception in 1969, AZDPS has further expanded their responsibilities to cover not just law enforcement, but also operational and technical assistance to local and other Arizona state governmental agencies. This included scientific analysis, criminal information systems, statewide communications and, through their aviation unit, official transportation, aerial enforcement support, emergency response, and search & rescue duties.

In the last year, the state’s Department of Transportation’s aviation unit was also consolidated into the AZDPS aviation unit, bringing with them additional assets and missions. Still on the horizon for AZDPS is the potential to bring another government agency into their operation as talks continue on a merger that would see the Arizona Department of Forestry combine their aviation department into the AZDPS Aviation Bureau, although nothing is finalized currently.

What is now the Aviation Bureau, was formed in 1962 with a single fixed-wing aircraft transitioning into becoming Arizona’s first statewide aerial search & rescue unit. In 1974, the Aviation Bureau also became the first statewide operation in Arizona. Experience in Vietnam had shown the value of aviation to affect a search and rescue role, as at the time, much of Arizona remained unpopulated and without roads. The advantages of air support were quickly realized and adopted.


Currently, the AZDPS Aviation Bureau operates five Bell 407 helicopters flown by sixteen pilots. The mission profiles and operational demands mean that prospective pilots must have at least 2,000 hours as PIC with a minimum of 1,000 turbine hours for eligibility. Currently, the average new hire comes in with 4,000 hours PIC. Pilots are also required to hold a commercial license and instrument rating, with preference given to those with NVG, mountain, and vertical reference experience.

An Arizona DPS Bell 407 prepares to conduct water rescue traing east of Phoenix. Photo by Mark Bennett.
An Arizona DPS Bell 407 prepares to conduct water rescue traing east of Phoenix. Photo by Mark Bennett.

Pilots seeking consideration must pass an initial pre-hire day/night check ride, similar to an FAA Part 135 check ride. If hired, the pilot will then face up to sixteen weeks of training that focuses not just on flying, but the wide range of mission profiles, protocols, procedures, and expectations of the Arizona DPS. New pilots are also required to attend Bell Helicopter OEM training in the 407 and, once assigned, will also complete annual OEM training in Texas. Additionally, pilots must maintain currency in vertical reference, short haul, NVG, and mountain flying.

New hires come aboard as civilians but are given the option to obtain sworn status, and most current pilots are, indeed, sworn Troopers, bringing its own set of compulsory recurrent schooling, including weapons training.

DPS Trooper-paramedics, of which there are currently nineteen serving the Aviation Bureau, are required to have three years of Highway Patrol experience before being assigned to aviation. When initially assigned to aviation they face a 16–20-week training regimen that covers all mission profiles and concludes with a series of staged scenarios, recreating actual missions with external agencies and field actors playing their roles. The Trooper-paramedic must also remain current and certified in their rescue and paramedic roles throughout their time. These certifications include Emergency Medical Technician-Paramedic, Advanced Life Support, Pediatric Life Support, Rope Rescue Technician, and Swift Water Rescue Technician. Additionally, rescue paramedics are required to certify in CPR, Helicopter Underwater Evacuation, obtain an FAA Class III medical, and other non-certificated recurrent training.

Since troopers also function as tactical flight officers, they are required to be sworn law enforcement and maintain currencies of their primary role in addition to flight requirements. Pilots and paramedics, alike, are full-time employees, though part-time assignments are considered on a case-by-case basis usually reserved for former full-time crew members.

The chief pilot of the unit is Trooper Cliff Brunsting, who retired from Army Aviation after 21 years and joined DPS in 1991. The chief paramedic, Dan Millon, joined DPS in 1999 after working as a paramedic in the private sector.

The five Air Rescue helicopters are based in four locations around the state: Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Kingman, with the fifth Bell 407 acting as a relief aircraft that can be stationed at any base as their primary aircraft is taken in for scheduled maintenance. Maintenance tasks are typically performed at the aviation unit headquarters located at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

The Aviation Bureau Bell 407’s feature Rolls-Royce M250-C47B engines fitted with the VIP upgrade kit to assist with better hot & high performance, a must have in Arizona where mountains climb to over 12,000 feet, and temperatures can top 120 °F regularly. The engines are also protected by Donaldson IBF and IVF barrier filtration systems which, in addition to filtering out airborne contaminants, further contribute to greater available power and higher margins.

AZDPS 407’s are also equipped with a Spectrolab SX-5 searchlight, IAI TAMAM POP200 or POP300 FLIR units (captured to a Stark DVR if desired), Onboard Systems cargo hooks, and they can carry an SEI Bambi bucket if required for fire fighting if necessary.

The avionics suite onboard each of the helicopters features an ASU designed NVG compatible avionics package featuring a Garmin GNS 530 and 430 GPS. Although used in a multi-mission capability, AZDPS helicopters are all equipped to provide complete medical care onboard in addition to their policing and search and rescue capabilities. Each helicopter carries a Zoll heart monitor/defibrillator, oxygen, suction, fittings for hanging intravenous fluids and, critical in the desert, air conditioning; fitted by Paravion Technology in two aircraft and by Air Comm in the other three. Quality Aviation Services, a division of Evergreen, completed the first medical interior for AZDPS, while the subsequent four were completed by what is now Paradigm Aerospace.

The aircraft and their equipment are maintained by three maintenance technicians led by Aircraft Maintenance Supervisor Dave Taylor who came to the AZDPS as an independent contractor in 1986, becoming a direct employee in 1996, having now been with the agency in both capacities for over thirty years.

AZDPS Rescue aircraft cover a state that covers nearly 114,000 square miles and is the sixth largest state in the nation, with a population of approximately seven million people. From the agencies four bases, AZDPS crews can conduct search & rescue missions, day or night. The unit staff has developed over the years a wide-ranging expertise level that is maintained by practical application and continuous training completed with other rescue professionals and SAR volunteers around the state. Crews also train regularly for toe-in, one-skid, and hovering ingress and egress, critical skills in a state with Arizona’s terrain.

In addition to rescue missions, the unit is called on to transport necessary materials, photograph accident scenes, support law enforcement ground units, survey disasters, or carry maintenance crews to remote locations on mountain tops. This last task can turn an otherwise 2-hour drive, including time spent crawling up rough dirt forestry roads, into a 35-minute hop.

Arizona DPS Bell 407 helicopters fly missions including law enforcement, EMS and search and rescue. Photo by Mark Bennett.
                        Arizona DPS Bell 407 helicopters fly missions including law enforcement, EMS and search and rescue. Photo by Mark Bennett.

Arizona DPS aircraft are often called out by other law enforcement agencies or government entities around the state to assist them in various other missions too diverse to list.


All pilots and crew of each helicopter are required to use a Flight Risk Assessment Tool for daily shift analysis and, as needed, an assessment tool for specific mission analysis as they arise. Post-mission reports are studied and discussed by all in the unit to evaluate any lessons learned and how they can continue to look for safer ways of doing the job they do.

Moreover, beyond these simple efforts, underlying all their missions is a culture of, and focus on safety. Starting at the top of the units food chain, all the way down, the group follows established rules and regulations created by the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) and evaluated by the Public Safety Aviation Accreditation Commission (PSAAC.) AZDPS is currently seeking accreditation in all three fields: public safety, search and rescue, and fire. Before attaining those goals, the AZDPS Aviation Bureau seeks to instill in all staff a mindset of “Safety First/Mission Second.”

Arizona DPS Officers prepare for a training event. Photo by Mark Bennett.
                                                              Arizona DPS Officers prepare for a training event. Photo by Mark Bennett.

Yes, crews see themselves in the business of responding to emergency situations, but never want the emergency they respond to become their emergency, creating a second need for rescue where the rescuer then becomes the one in need of rescue. Crews have it drilled into them from the top down, that the right decision may require them to say, “no, we cannot help you.” All troopers assigned to the unit are dedicated professionals eager to perform to their best abilities, but not at the expense of the safety of the aircraft or other crew members.

Whether helping enforce laws, hauling a stranded person out of peril, delivering medicine to a community cut off by flooding, or lifting a pregnant woman from the depths of the Grand Canyon, it is what they always train for, and it is what each appears born to do.

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Read the Arizona DPS story by Mark Bennet on page 34 of the July 2017 edition.
                                     Read the Arizona DPS story by Mark Bennet on page 34 of the July 2017 edition.


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