ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Following a fatal crash involving the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office’s “Metro 2” helicopter, it may be years before the law enforcement agency is able to restart a similar air unit with broad police, fire and rescue capabilities. Sheriff Manny Gonzales discussed the future the specialized emergency response team in a news conference Wednesday.
Gonzales, who will leave office in early 2023, says he is intent on doing what he can to keep the unit going, however, it is currently facing equipment and staffing challenges. Before the crash, BCSO’s Metro Air Unit responded to law enforcement, search and rescue and fire fighting calls.
The helicopter that crashed in July, Metro 2, was helping fight a wildfire near Las Vegas. The unit’s pilot, Lt. Larry Koren died in the crash alongside the intended next pilot, Lieutenant Fred Beers. Deputy Michael Levison, and Bernalillo County Fire Rescue Specialist Matthew King were also killed in the crash.
While BCSO still owns and maintains another helicopter (AStar B3) and a fixed-wing plane (Cessna T-41C), those aircrafts are typically only used for law enforcement response. Gonzales emphasized Wednesday the importance of the county’s role in a wide array of emergency response, noting Metro 2’s January 2022 rescue of people on a frozen Sandia tram car.
“These things will take anywhere from five, ten, fifteen years, but I would hope with the vision, the plan and the fortitude of this unit, that these things will happen over the years to come,” Gonzales said Wednesday. “It’s not something that you’re going to see immediately.”
Since the crash, BCSO has appointed a new sergeant to oversee the unit. Gonzales said the sergeant, Charles Lill, has expressed interest in flying. BCSO has also spoken to other people that are said to be interested in flying for the office. The sheriff began to express some indications of possible airworthiness Wednesday, but stopped short of offering a possible timeline
“At this point we’re not in a position to fly at this time,” Gonzales said. “I believe with the sergeant in place and with some of the other people that we’ve talked to that actually fly, we could be possibly airworthy– I won’t give you a time, I think that would be very premature and irresponsible of me.”
Gonzales said Wednesday the department will head to San Diego later this month for a research mission on San Diego County’s air unit. While emphasizing that he hasn’t “committed” to any financial figures, the sheriff estimated a multi-million dollar cost to restart BCSO’s air unit as it was prior to the crash. Gonzales gave a ballpark estimate of between 8 to 15 million dollars, which would include the purchase of a new helicopter.
“I believe one of the most critical things for us, and the purse-string-holders is that they commit to continuing to keep the citizens of Bernalillo County and State of New Mexico safe,” Sheriff Gonzales said. “We understand what’s at risk, to include the always-chance of the East Mountains, we have the Dog Head Fire just a couple years ago, we’ve had Bosque fires and we’ve had other incidents.”
Another elected official, Bernalillo County Commissioner Walt Benson appeared at Wednesday’s news conference. Benson, who represents parts of northeast Bernalillo County, said he’s committed to supporting a future air unit. The Bernalillo County Commission is the ultimate authority on how much money the sheriff’s office has to spend.
“[The Sandia Tram rescue] just speaks to the versatility of this program,” Benson said, while also highlighting the need for help in addressing the county’s drag racing problem. “We can’t do that without the sheriff’s support and I think the air unit is an integral part of that.”
Four people were killed when the county’s Metro 2 helicopter crashed near Las Vegas, New Mexico on July 17. Before the crash, Metro 2 was returning to Bernalillo County after helping fight wildfires in the Las Vegas area. Investigators say the helicopter had just refueled in Las Vegas, however, it remains unclear what caused the crash.
BCSO said Wednesday it was unable to answer any questions about the cause of the crash or the investigation into the cause. In early August, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report shedding some light on what witnesses saw during the crash.