Standing between two helicopters, members of the Omaha Police Department (OPD) and representatives from the City of Omaha began their partnership with the City of Blair with a ribbon cutting Thursday at the Blair Municipal Airport.
The airport is now home to OPD's Air Support Unit and its fleet of helicopters.
“We look forward to the next 10 years and beyond in this partnership,” OPD Deputy Chief Kerry Neumann said during the ceremony, which was also attended by members of the Blair Airport Authority, SkyWerx representatives, Blair police and deputies from Washington and Douglas counties.
The Omaha City Council approved a 10-year lease for the City of Blair-owned hangar in November. Renovations on the hangar, which cost approximately $1.26 million, began in January. The work, which included a 77,000-gallon tank for a fire suppression system, was completed in June. The air support unit moved in soon after.
Neumann said the Blair airport was the ideal location for the unit due to its stability and proximity to Omaha.
“The Blair Airport is not going to go anywhere and that was one of the key things for us was to be able to have stability for our unit,” he said. “It's a perfect fit for us.”
A newer, upgraded facility was also desirable.
“We were working out of a hangar that was 22-plus years old,” Neumann said. “It needed some upgrades and repairs and this was available for us.”
Officer and Pilot Jason Messerschmidt said the new facility will allow the air support unit to grow.
“Now we have more room that we can get a three- or five-bladed system that is in the future more capable and look into the rescue side than just the support, especially with the flooding,” said Messerschmidt, who has served with OPD for 15 years and the air support unit for 10. “It's kind of a helpless feeling to see a lot of the flooding going on and we can't do anything. We just have to call people in.”
Neumann predicted the lease at Blair will be extended after 10 years.
“We look to be here for the long haul,” he said.
Blair City Administrator Rod Storm, who also serves as airport manager, said providing a space for the air support unit is beneficial for the airport.
“Any additional aviation is going to be a benefit,” Storm said. “There will be a side benefit that you've got a police department here in southern Washington County. Just that presence out here has an impact on the community.”
Storm said having the helicopters at the airport helps not only Omaha provide a public service for its city, but surrounding communities and counties. The unit is often called for mutual aid and has assisted Washington County deputies and Blair officers on a number of occasions.
OPD's Air Support Unit was established in 1995 and first housed at Eppley Airfield. It was staffed by one command officer, three pilots and one mechanic. The unit has since doubled in size and includes two Bell Jet Ranger Aircraft purchased in 2008.
“The Air Support Unit is a critical component of the Omaha Police Department and surrounding communities and metro area,” Neumann said.
The unit, also known as Able-1, has an impact on community policing, social media and public safety. Their operations include providing aerial support coverage for vehicle pursuits, foot pursuits, criminal investigations and surveillances.
In 1997, the unit moved to the North Omaha Airport, where it has been located since.
OPD began looking for a new hangar in 2011.
In 24 years, the unit had only one incident when a helicopter experienced engine failure after taking off from the North Omaha Airport and crashed in April.
“We're so thankful that no one was injured in the accident and thanks to (the pilots') experience and training they were able to set that helicopter down,” Neumann said.
OPD will host the Airborne Public Safety Association's annual conference — APSCON — next week at the CHI Health Center in Omaha. The exhibition is open to the public July 17-19.