The U.S. Park Police’s Eagle 2 helicopter -- which polices the most secure airspace in the nation, helps lead presidential motorcades -- should have been grounded two years ago, according to an internal study by the Park Police and the U.S. Department of Interior.
The News4 I-Team found that a 2012 analysis recommended replacing Park Police aircraft after 5,000 hours of operation. But Eagle 2 has flown more than 9,300 hours and is about 26 years old.
The I-Team’s investigation also found Eagle 2, a Bell 412 model, has been flown twice as much as the same model helicopter operated by the Miami-Dade County Fire Department and five times more hours than the same model helicopter operated by the Chicago Fire Department.
The I-Team found “Eagle 1”, also a Bell 412 model, has also surpassed 5,000 hours of operation. “Eagle 1” has flown at least 6,588 hours, according to US Park Police records.
“Eagle 1” was used Tuesday in the manhunt for a fugitive in Northern Virginia. It was also used to rescue a victim of the Navy Yard shootings in September 2013.
In its maintenance records, Bell Helicopter, manufacturer of the helicopter, recommends nearly all of the component parts have a lifespan of no more than 10,000 hours.
Ian Glick, a veteran U.S. Park Police Officer and president of its union, said rank and file officers are losing confidence in Eagle 2 and are lobbying Congressional leaders for a replacement.
“When you fly a helicopter, you’re not breaking the laws of physics, but you’re bending them," Glick said. "And if you’re bending them for an extended period of time on an airframe, it causes problems.”
The I-Team found no safety incidents involving the helicopter. Glick said Eagle 2 is currently safe to operate, but pilots are losing confidence in its airframe.
Glick said, “With a helicopter, should the engine go out, the helicopter is going straight down.”
The agency records obtained by the I-Team show US Park Police leaders recommended Eagle 2 be mothballed by 2013. The agency’s own internal analysis of its fleet said, “It’s only a matter of before their increasing age and flights hours significantly compromise flight readiness and operational safety.”
Though there have been multiple efforts by local leaders in Congress to provide funding for the purchase of a helicopter to replace Eagle 2, funding has not materialized and there is no timetable for purchase of a replacement. Estimates provided by lobbyists representing the US Park Police union show a replacement helicopter could cost approximately $14 million.
In a statement, U.S. Park Police spokeswoman Sgt. Lelani Woods said the helicopters are needed for a diverse set of missions, including rescues of the injured and surveillance patrols for Presidential motorcades.
“The National Park Service invests more than $3 million per year to equip and train the men and women who fly and maintain the unit’s three helicopters," Woods' statement said. "As we move forward and these aircraft age, we will continue to analyze the unit’s mission, the work it performs and choose new aircraft that fit those needs.
"The helicopters United States Park Police pilots fly remain safe and serviceable," the statement said. "The United States Park Police continues to work within the established acquisition process to identify flexibilities within base appropriations and leverage additional funding sources with the goal of replacing its aging helicopter with an aircraft of equivalent mission capabilities.”