Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies

Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies
1745 North Marshall Ave.
El Cajon, CA 92020
Public: (619) 956-4930
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  • Formed in 1971
  • Nine aircraft in use
  • Patrol, fire supression and search & rescue missions
  • Night vision and Infrared capabilities

Our Mission

To provide enhanced public and officer safety by providing effective law enforcement, search and rescue, fire suppression, and emergency service air support to public safety agencies throughout San Diego County.

Please select from the links to the right to learn more about our aerial support unit.

Frequently Asked Quentions

Does the San Diego Sheriff’s Department have an aviation unit?

Yes. The Sheriff’s Department aviation unit provides Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies and is commonly known as ASTREA.

How large is the Sheriff’s aviation unit and where is ASTREA based?

ASTREA is based at Gillespie Airport in El Cajon, CA. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department operates a fleet of nine helicopters. Of the nine helicopters, four are MD500 series helicopters and two are Bell 407 helicopters, which are primarily dedicated to law enforcement support. Three helicopters (Bell 205 A1++) are primarily dedicated to fire suppression/search and rescue operations. Staffing consists of one lieutenant, two sergeants, fourteen deputy sheriffs and six mechanics.

When does ASTREA initiate air support and what is the frequency of air support?

ASTREA provides air support 365 days per year/20 hours per day (between the hours of 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.) Flight hours can vary depending on type of service calls. Approximately 8 hours per day is the average number of hours a helicopter will be in service.

What missions are requested of ASTREA?

ASTREA provides air support to all public safety agencies in San Diego County (consisting of about 4,200 square miles). ASTREA responds to radio calls for law enforcement support, fire suppression, and Search and Rescue (SAR) incidents. Additionally, when requested, ASTREA will provide assistance to surrounding counties under State Mutual Aid agreements.

I can see and hear a helicopter flying in circles over my neighborhood at night, but I rarely see them use the spotlight/searchlight. What are they doing?

When an ASTREA law enforcement helicopter orbits a location for more than a minute or two during the day or night, ASTREA is assisting deputies or police officers on the ground. Searchlights are not always used at nighttime because helicopters are outfitted with thermal imaging systems that can detect heat in outdoor environments and aid in locating a suspect. Crew members typically utilize night vision goggles to enhance night time vision.

If a helicopter is orbiting in my neighborhood, how can I find out what is going on?

When an incident involves a felony suspect search, the helicopter crew will often conduct PA announcements to notify the community. The same is true for at-risk missing persons, such as a small child or an elderly person.

I can hear a PA announcement from the helicopter but I can’t understand what was said. What should I do?

Sheriff's ASTREA (helicopter) uses a loudspeaker when searching for a missing person or suspect. Announcements are also made during critical incidents such as a SWAT standoff, disasters, crowd management events or to give people a shelter in place notification.

Not everyone will understand the PA announcements all the time due to the helicopter’s orbit, altitude, location, and other noise. For this reason, ASTREA crew members are trained to keep announcements short and repeat the announcement frequently.

Call or text "Hello" to (858) 866-HELO (4356) to receive helicopter messages straight to your phone.

If there is more than one active broadcast at any given time, you have the option to choose the message that impacts your location. Currently, this service is only available for Sheriff's Department patrol areas. To learn more about the communities we serve, visit

While this program is free, you might have to pay to receive text messages depending on your phone plan.

This phone line is not for reporting a crime or emergency. For emergencies, call 9-1-1. For non-emergencies, call (858) 565-5200.

I think I observed the person(s) based on the PA announcement. What do I do?

If you see a person matching the description from the PA announcements, please call 9-1-1.

Does the Sheriff’s Department use social media for community notifications?

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department does have a presence on Twitter and Nixle®. We do not currently staff our social media presence around the clock, so not every incident involving ASTREA results in a social media alert. Serious incidents encompassing extended law enforcement activity often result in a community alert. Major incidents requiring ASTREA’s assistance (e.g. missing person searches, SWAT standoff with road closures, or wildfire involving evacuations) will often be posted and updated on the above mentioned social media sites.

What are the normal altitudes at which ASTREA helicopters fly?

ASTREA law enforcement helicopters generally fly at a minimum altitude of 500 feet above ground level. This altitude is generally accepted as the minimum altitude needed to make a safe and emergency auto-rotational landing if a mechanical malfunction occurs. At night time, for safety and noise abatement purposes, air crews are trained and encouraged to fly 1000 feet above ground level. For noise abatement purposes, ASTREA Fire/Rescue helicopters (Bell 205) fly at 1000 feet above ground level when transitioning to and from calls.

Do ASTREA helicopter crews realize how much noise the helicopter makes when orbiting over a neighborhood?

As members of the aviation community, we recognize aircraft noise is a concern to many residents within the County of San Diego. It is the goal of every ASTREA crew member to minimize aircraft noise to the communities and cities served while simultaneously balancing the region’s aerial law enforcement needs. When supporting law enforcement activities on the ground, ASTREA makes every effort to not orbit an area longer than necessary.

How many different helicopters fly in San Diego County?

Countless number of helicopters can operate in and around San Diego County including helicopters owned by the military, state and federal law enforcement agencies, other fire/rescue agencies, medevac, corporate, agriculture, student pilots, and power-line helicopters.

If I have a complaint about an ASTREA helicopter, who can I talk to about the noise or any other concerns that I may have?

You may discuss any concerns you have with an ASTREA supervisor by calling (619) 956-4930 during the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from Monday to Friday.

      Helicopter Messages