ABLE program now grounded for good

JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT — It was a somber day for the pilots of the police choppers in the AirBorne Law Enforcement program.

For six of the seven ABLE pilots, Thursday signaled the eve of going from patrolling the skies above Newport-Mesa and Santa Ana back to patrolling the streets.

As of Friday, the John Wayne Airport hangar that housed ABLE's three EC120 helicopters will become a storage space for the aircraft dubbed "Eagle," which is jointly owned by Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.

Both cities have dismantled the shared police helicopter program, thus ending a 15-year partnership. Both city councils decided to cut ABLE to save money as part of implementing leaner budgets for the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Thursday, the last day of ABLE, turned out to be a relatively idle one. The pilots got no service calls.

Instead, six of the pilots, who are from the Costa Mesa and Newport Beach police departments, met for a last meeting. Words of encouragement were said, and members of the ABLE team were told to leave the program with their heads held high, knowing they served their communities well, said Lt. Tom Fischbacher.

The pilots expected upwards of 75 people at a going-away party in the hangar Thursday, which was to include a photo slideshow and catered tacos paid by ABLE pilots. Among those on the guest list included former police chiefs Dave Snowden, of Costa Mesa, and Newport's Bob McDonell — two men who were instrumental in fusing the two helicopter programs, Fischbacher said.

Also invited were family, some members of both departments and people from the control tower who pilots worked closely with over the years.

Years worth of ABLE relics were in the hangar, including vintage photos on the office windows that depicted highlights of the helicopter service in the two cities.

A photo of Costa Mesa's only two officers killed in the line of duty — John Libolt and David Ketchum — was shown. The two were pictured crouching in front of a Costa Mesa police helicopter and smiling, Crush sodas in hand.

Libolt and Ketchum were killed in a collision with a Newport Beach helicopter in March 1987, years before the two departments fused. The two police departments had their own helicopter service since the 1970s before joining forces as a cost-saving measure.

As of Friday, both cities will begin contracting police helicopter services with the Huntington Beach Police Department for about $700 per hour. The contract for Costa Mesa is set to extend through the end of the year.

Newport Beach's agreement calls for using Surf City's helicopter for about two months, said city spokeswoman Tara Finnigan.

The cities can begin to sell their equipment Friday, although they cannot officially execute the sales until October.

Residents shouldn't notice a difference in service from Huntington Beach's choppers, Fischbacher said, although there may be a difference in the noise level overhead because their helicopters do not have tail rotors, which cut extraneous sound.

About 5 p.m. Thursday, ABLE pilots were to take off again and fly their birds in a "Last Flight" formation over the JWA tower.

"How do you say goodbye after 40 years?" Fischbacher said.

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