The Atlanta police helicopter that crashed and killed two officers on board had been completely refurbished within the last decade, and its pilot and maintenance crew were confident it was safe to fly, officials said Monday.
The 45-year-old chopper went down on a busy city street late Saturday while the officers were searching for a 9-year-old boy who had run away. The helicopter hit a power line pole, and part of its landing gear got tangled up in cables before the rest of it plummeted to the street.
What those upgrades entailed was not immediately available. The department had a newer chopper, but Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the veteran pilot who had been flying for 16 years preferred the older model because it was easy to maneuver.
Officials also said the helicopters often helped search for runaways.
"This is a routine call that an air unit would respond to," said Deputy Chief Renee Propes, who added police helicopters are dispatched for a variety of reasons, including tracking stolen cars. Three helicopters remain in the fleet, including the one purchased new in 2002 for $1.4 million at the department's request, officials said.
The helicopter that crashed was given to the agency in 1994 by the military. Another one was given by the National Guard in 2009; a third was bought in 1987.
It was not yet known if the fallen officers had been using night vision, though Propes said pilots often rely on their sight alone, even at night.
Darryl Kimball, who runs the website policehelicopterpilot.com and flew for more than five years with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, said it's not necessary to use night vision over a well-lit city.
"You get away from the city lights at nighttime, in any aircraft ... helicopters flying low over dark areas can be dangerous," Kimball said.
The air unit has been temporarily grounded, in part to give fellow officers time to grieve for the pilot, Richard J. Halford, 48, and 40-year-old tactical flight officer Shawn A. Smiley.
Smiley had his commercial license and was considered a "rising star" in the air unit, Propes said. Halford's funeral is set for Friday; Smiley's is Saturday.
The Georgia State Patrol and DeKalb County authorities have agreed to provide air assistance in the meantime if it's needed.
Kimball, the former police pilot, said it was not uncommon for him to respond to reports of missing people, including children and the elderly. He also said the helicopter's age wasn't cause for alarm. Well-maintained helicopters can remain in service for decades as long as parts are replaced when they need to be.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations generally state that all aircraft must maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 feet in congested areas, but helicopters are given wide latitude.
A fact sheet on the FAA website about low-flying aircraft complaints says: "Further, the helicopter's increased use by law enforcement and emergency medical service agencies requires added flexibility in the application of many FAA provisions."
Kimball said pilots and their observers tend to be cautious when it comes to any sort of power lines. When he flew missions, they would call out any lines they spotted in the cockpit.
"Every helicopter pilot knows wires kill helicopters," he said. "I would be surprised if they were intentionally flying that low."