Keeping an eye on the thousands of spring breakers that visit Walton County beaches every year sometimes requires more than boots on the sand, patrol cars on the road and boats in the water.
When they need to get a complete view of what’s going on at the beach and in the neighborhoods, the WCSO takes to the sky with its helicopter.
The WCSO has a Bell OH 58 Charlie model chopper, which was previously used to train army pilots at Eglin Air Force Base. These days, the chopper, or “bird” or “ship” as it is sometimes called, is used to patrol beaches and aid in search-and-rescue missions in counties throughout Northwest Florida and South Alabama.
“The helicopter gives us a great vantage point from an elevated platform,” said Deputy Eric Alexander. “We can see what’s going on, the totality of what’s going on, versus being on the ground. If we’re doing a search and rescue operation, we can cover more ground from the air than we can by having all the resources scattered throughout the ground.”
Joe Candlish, chief pilot with the WCSO, said the chopper comes in handy in many situations.
“We actually provide air support to anybody who asks for it,” he said. “We respond to anybody, anywhere in the state, if disaster strikes. During the hurricane (Hermine) we were on standby, but it didn’t develop.”
During spring break, the WCSO uses the helicopter primarily to get a bird’s eye view of where the large crowds are gathered, both on the beaches and in residential neighborhoods.
Candlish and a deputy will fly up and down the beaches, usually one flight a day as needed depending on the weather and crowd densities, from the 30A area in Walton County all the way down toward Okaloosa Island and back. This year, like last year, the WCSO is assisting the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office with their spring break operations.
“The helicopter can serve several abilities (during spring break). We can see how many people are on the ground, where the hot spots are, where the largest groups are as far as the spring breakers,” Alexander said. “We can also look out for people who are inappropriately behaving on balconies … or overcrowding. We can look for larger party houses and be able to see from the air and let our ground units know so they can go and respond as necessary.”
On red flag days, Alexander and Candlish said they use the chopper to check the Gulf waters and make sure there are no swimmers in distress.
“We had a lot of rescues last year that involved people who had been drinking and making a lot of bad decisions at the last minute,” Alexander said. “So our goal is to prevent that.”