SABLE Aviation Unit

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Southeastern NC Air-Borne Law Enforcement

The primary purpose of SABLE is to support and increase the effectiveness of officers in the field through aerial observation and communication. The SABLE unit provides four key elements to the total force: speed in response, visible police presence, technology, and increased officer safety. SABLE delivers a situational awareness to the officers on the ground in any situation

The SABLE program is a model example of a regional, multi-agency effort, shared between the Wilmington Police Department, Leland Police Department, and the Pender County Sheriff Department.

Each partner agency provides their own deputies or officers to perform as Tactical Flight Officers for dedicated mission support and internal training. The Wilmington Police Department is responsible for all daily operations, administrative requirements, budgeting, and is the primary Liaison for the program. Both SABLE 1 and SABLE 2 are operated and maintained by the Wilmington Police Department.


SABLE utilizes two officers as full time pilots, with a part time pilot available and assisting regularly. All are sworn officers and former military helicopter pilots with a combined 38,000 flight hours of experience in multiple airframes. The part-time pilot is a retired FAA inspector, and provides regulatory oversight of the SABLE program along with performing as the unit Flight Instructor. This enables the program to operate at a high level of safety and professionalism.

The operation of all mission equipment is the responsibility of the Tactical Flight Officer. The TFO is highly trained in all aspects of the equipment and helicopter operations, making this a cohesive team. The TFO is responsible for direct communication and support of the ground units, coordinating efforts, establishing priorities of support with local, state, and federal agencies. There are currently two full time tactical flight officers, with five trained part-time TFO’s within the Wilmington Police Department. The patrol experience the tactical flight officer brings to the mission is immeasurable when it comes to directing an operation or assisting the individual officer on the ground.

The program is directed by the Executive Board that is made up of the Leadership (Chief or Sheriff) of the participating agencies and is as follows:

  • Chief Ralph Evangelous, Wilmington Police Department
  • Sheriff Ed McMahon, New Hanover County Sheriff
  • Chief Mike James, Leland Police Department
  • Sheriff Carson H. Smith, Pender County Sheriff Department

Each member of the Board has an equal vote in how the program is managed and operated. 

Unit Coordinator

Ofc. P. Letson
615 Bess Street
Wilmington, NC 28402
Phone: 910.341.1603


The SABLE aircraft are retired Army Bell OH-58C Kiowa Helicopters. Both aircraft were acquired through the Government 1033 Program, at no cost to the City of Wilmington. This program allows agencies whose primary function is law enforcement to acquire surplus military equipment.

Aircraft Specifics

  • Length - 41 ft
  • Max gross weight - 3200 lbs
  • Max Fuel - 70 gal
  • Max Flight time - 3 hours
  • Seating - Pilot, TFO, one passenger
  • Engine - 420 HP Allison Turbine


The SABLE aircrafts are retired Army Bell OH-58C Kiowa Helicopters. The aircraft have been upgraded to the highest standards in Police Aviation equipment in order to serve the public in this mission. All upgrades have been purchased through grants supporting this program. Grants have been awarded by the US Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Defense, and NC Port Authority.

  • Advanced Multi-Mission FLIR Ultra 8500 Forward Looking Infrared Camera
  • Low-Light TV Camera
  • Nightsun SX16 Searchlight
  • Microwave Downlink Transmitter with portable briefcase receiver
  • Military Night Vision Goggles (ANVIS-6 V1)
  • Integrated Moving Map
  • Technisonic TFM-500 Dual Band Transceiver
  • Project Lifesaver Care Trac Telemetry system
  • 24 / 7 Availability

Mission Profiles

  • Crimes in progress – robberies, burglaries, etc
  • Support of Ground Units increasing officer safety
  • Search for lost, stranded, or suspected persons and extract them on a limited basis if necessary
  • Tactical Support and Surveillance – Emergency Response Team
  • Long distance covert surveillance with microwave transmission capability
  • Vehicle Pursuit – Having a helicopter overhead slows down the pursuit by allowing patrol cars to back off, usually causing the suspect to slow as well increasing safety for civilian traffic by reducing the number of vehicles required to follow and apprehend
  • Provide assistance to Incident Commanders during any unusual occurrences or events including hurricane relief, flooding, fire, riots, and conduct disaster assessment
  • Fire – hazardous material support
  • Drug eradication
  • Force multiplier – one aircraft can cover an area that would require a minimum of six ground units
  • Serve as an aerial deterrent to crime by the conspicuous presence of the SABLE Aircraft
  • Provide aerial surveillance for investigative units
  • Assist with Traffic Control
  • Fly photographic missions as required for planning, analysis, surveying, or evidence gathering