In 1970, San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy introduced a new vision for a policing program that would greatly enhance officer safety and service to the community, a law enforcement helicopter patrol. The program would provide aerial law enforcement support to all public safety agencies in San Diego at no cost.
By 1971, ASTREA (Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies), named after the Greek Goddess of Justice, was formed. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department obtained a fleet of three Bell 47 helicopters and successfully established offices, maintenance facilities and staff.
ASTREA’s highest value was found in search and rescue platforms, especially in remote areas and rugged terrain where it was difficult to reach by ground vehicles. The crews developed techniques to deliver rescue personnel into remote scenes and bring them and victims to safety.
Within a few years, ASTREA acquired three more Bell 47 helicopters. Law enforcement agencies began to rely heavily upon the unit for their air support services.
Despite ASTREA’s initial success, a major tragedy caused the unit to reassess its helicopter fleet when a a nine-year-old boy became separated from his family while visiting Palomar Mountain. The unit found that their Bell 47 helicopters were limited in performance during their search and rescue efforts of the boy. It was difficult to identify objects at the 6,140-foot elevation. The unit had to turn to the media for their helicopters which were more powerful. The department realized a new aircraft that could fulfill a variety of mission requirements was needed.
In 1983, ASTREA obtained two Hughes 500D helicopters. The aircraft was faster and could seat more people, allowing the unit to work in nearly impossible conditions. By the early 1990’s, the department got rid of its Bell 47 helicopters and obtained four more Hughes 500 helicopters.
In 1972, a group of citizens complained about the helicopter noise. Sheriff Duffy responded by saying, “The helicopters you hear can save your life or your property...we’d like to think of that noise as the sound of security.”