Texas Dept of Public Safety uses Airbus helos, Cessna Caravan, Pilatus PC12 and more to keep order and protect citizens

For almost 70 years, dedicated DPS officers have flown across Texas to accomplish search & rescue, find marijuana growers, aid in disaster relief, apprehend criminals and spot illegal entrants.

By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot
AS350, AW 119, Cessna 182/172

Both the Airbus AS350B3 AStar (right) and EC145 (left) are utilized by the Texas DPS for search and rescue operations.

Often the familiar saying "Everything is bigger in Texas" just seems to fit. Whether it's the 270,000 square miles of land, their love of sports teams, or the impact Texas has had on American history, "big" and "Texas" go hand in hand. While the sheer size of the state offers numerous benefits to Texas economies, namely petroleum and cattle, it can also present challenges. With a population of nearly 28 million people spread across an area almost 800 miles east to west and north to south, the job of law enforcement can be a formidable one.

As far back as the early 1800s, the Texas Rangers provided order and protection to the territory. Since that time, the task of safeguarding the state's citizens has been largely passed on to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Of the many resources at their disposal, few offer the ability to reach the far corners of the Lone Star State like the airplanes and helicopters of the Aircraft Operations Division. In a big place with big demands, they're ready to answer the call.


Some of the first organized policing in the United States dates to the late 1700s, mostly federal agencies created under the presidency of George Washington. Shortly thereafter, Stephen Austin, known as the Father of Texas, gathered 10 men to protect new settlers arriving after the Mexican War of Independence. The year was 1823 and thus began the rich history of Texas law enforcement. Over time, the Texas Rangers took on more responsibility, including chasing wanted persons, conducting criminal investigations, and assisting town sheriffs and constables.

As the state became more populated and vehicles came into play, the Texas Highway Patrol was formed in 1929. In an effort to keep statewide law enforcement more cohesive, in 1935 the Department of Public Safety (DPS) was created with the Highway Patrol, the Rangers, and other operations under its umbrella.

In 1949, the DPS saw increased need to move their people and equipment throughout the state. The Aviation Unit was established with the purchase of a single-engine North American Ryan Navion, which was based in Austin due to the central location. This may have been the "official" beginnings of the unit's use of aircraft but there are stories of the Rangers flying along with the US Coast Guard and Treasury units on anti-smuggling missions as far back as 1935.

The Texas Aviation Unit began with a single pilot and plane, but by 1953 aviation patrol services were in such high demand that a 2nd pilot was added. Over the next several years, the Navion was replaced by 3 twin-engine Cessna 310s. By the late 1960s the fixed-wing fleet added a Cessna 320. At the same time, 2 additional pilots were hired and bases were opened in Dallas and Midland. This period also saw the start of DPS rotary-wing operations.

What began as a 4-month experiment with 2 Bell 47G-5 helicopters to test their worth to law enforcement resulted in the purchase of these 2 helicopters and the addition of 4 more pilots. The 2 Bell 47s proved so popular that 3 Bell 206 JetRangers and 2 Bell 47G-4As were added within months.

As more aircraft were added to the fleet, new bases were established in Corpus Christi, Houston, Lubbock and Waco, and more pilots, copilots and paramedics came on board.
By the mid 1970s, the Aircraft Section had created their 1st chief pilot position, the aircraft were upgraded to Cessna 400s and Bell JetRanger helicopters, and 15 full-time pilots were employed. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a variety of aircraft were flown including Cessna 206s, 210s, and briefly, a military surplus T-41 (Cessna 172).

Current fleet

As the mission demands expanded and technology advanced, more modern aircraft were needed. By the mid 1980s, equipment viewed as commonplace to today's airborne law enforcement was just hitting the market. Specialized searchlights, infrared imaging, advanced radio systems, and other tactical gear all added weight and took up space in the cockpit. So after evaluating available airframes, the Texas DPS began their transition to the Eurocopter (now Airbus) AS350 AStar. It quickly became the favored model and by the 1990s made up the entire helicopter fleet.

As a multi-role aircraft, AStars continue to be used for routine patrol, search and rescue, marijuana eradication, disaster relief, border security, and just about any other request that comes their way. Their effectiveness is maximized with a complement of equipment including L-3 WESCAM MX10 & MX12 multi-sensor imaging systems, AeroComputer mapping, Spectrolab SX16 Nightsun searchlights and multi-band radios.

Asst Dir & Chief Pilot Bill Nabors leads the 74 pilots and tactical flight officers in the Texas DPS Aircraft Operations Division. He has spent 23 of his 28 years with the DPS in the air.

Texas DPS currently has a stable of 14 AStars, a mix of B2s and B3s. The oldest is a 1999 model and the newest a 2012. The other Airbus in the mix is a 2008 EC145. While all their helos are utilized for all missions, the 145 specializes in hoist and rescue operations due to its increased size, twin engines and powerful lifting capabilities.

On the fixed-wing side of the house, the DPS Air Unit has a more mixed selection. Cessnas are still in the majority with 4 206s and a pair of 208 Caravans. With no cameras or sensors onboard, the 206s are used for training, short-distance transport, and criminal surveillance when requested. The increased size and ability of the Caravans, along with the imaging and mapping equipment they carry, make them capable of handling a variety of assignments.

For transports of staff and prisoners, their Twin Commander 1000, obtained through the criminal asset seizure process, has traditionally been the preferred choice. Although it has no specific law enforcement equipment, its ability to carry multiple passengers at 300 kts anywhere in the state with twin-engine safety leaves no doubt as to why they have kept this 30-year-old turboprop in service.

Looking to combine the transport capability of the Twin Commander and the law enforcement mission of the Caravan, in 2012 the DPS welcomed the 1st of 2 Pilatus PC12 Spectres. The PC12 has proved to be a jack-of-all-trades for them. With 8-passenger capacity, 280-kt performance, short-field takeoff and landing, 1800-nm range and cargo door loading, transporting personnel and equipment is easy.


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