BROOKSVILLE — On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Cpl. Dave Calianno suits up in his flight gear and effortlessly guides one of the Hernando County sheriff’s helicopters onto the flight pad at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
Calianno, who has served as the agency’s chief pilot since November, estimates his crew can be in the air five minutes after receiving a call.
It’s clear Calianno takes pride in showing off the aviation unit and hangar, the agency’s three choppers — two OH58s and one OH6 — and the technology and initiatives his team has worked on to keep costs down, such as a inventory-tracking database.
Before joining the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, Calianno worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a lieutenant aviation supervisor in northwest Florida, and as air support coordinator for Florida’s Department of Emergency Management.
A Pasco County native, Calianno began flying around 1993.
“I flew a little plane for fun,” Calianno said. The more he liked it, the more he flew, and eventually realized he wanted to find a way to keep flying and get paid to do it.
Calianno started out as an aerial photographer and banner puller, eventually working his way up to a flight instructor. He flew charter jets and worked at U.S. Air Express (Mesa Airlines) as a captain.
Calianno said he got out of the commercial air business after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and decided to get in law enforcement. He went to the academy at Pasco-Hernando State College, and began his career as a deputy at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, later transferring to the aviation unit as a tactical flight officer.
❖ ❖ ❖
The aviation unit is lean, Calianno said, with two full-time and one part-time pilot, as well as one full-time and two part-time on-call tactical flight officers.
“It’s a huge job that’s typically overlooked,” Calianno says of the “TFOs” — previously referred to as “stand-by observers.” Their responsibility is to operate the infrared and searchlights, communicate with the ground unit and do mapping while the pilot flies.
“It’s virtually impossible for one guy to do the job. You need two crew members to do it effectively and safely,” Calianno said.
The choppers were bought through a government surplus program, and the sheriff’s office shares a hangar with Bayflight — a medical flight outfit — to keep costs down. As a backup, the sheriff’s office has a mutual agreement with Pasco and Citrus counties to support each other if needed.
This year the aviation unit has a budget of $405,000 to cover the pilots and flight officer, a mechanic, fuel, repair and maintenance, and other operation costs. The sheriff’s total budget for the current year is more than $45 million, covering law enforcement, the jail, emergency management and courthouse security.
Even with a small staff, some residents believe the air unit is excessive spending of tax dollars, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Denise Moloney.
“But when an elderly person goes missing, they can go up and find them in a few minutes,” Moloney said. “They can see something so quickly that our ground units can’t see.”
The value of the air unit was realized earlier this month, as multiple law enforcement agencies combed tens of thousands of acres in the Withlacoochee State Forest for missing pilot Theodore Weiss.
The search started on Monday, April 9, in Citrus County. The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office joined in the search on Tuesday, sending a helicopter, ATVs, patrol deputies, mounted patrols and canines to search for Weiss’ small, single-engine airplane.
The search moved into Hernando County that Friday, and was called off the following day.
Calianno and sheriff’s office pilots spent 33 hours in the air that week, far exceeding March’s numbers, when the pilots flew 19 times for a total of 23 hours.
“I wish you could see what we were looking at, flying as slow as possible and looking straight down. Seeing through the canopy was almost impossible,” Calianno said, adding they were hoping to spot an object about the size of a small table.
Weiss has not been located, though the sheriff’s office continued to investigate tips on the ground sent in by the Civilian Air Patrol in the following days.
“It’s a fellow pilot, and we’d love to give that family closure,” Calianno said.
❖ ❖ ❖
There are plenty of success stories, however. Calianno recalls his time in Tallahassee, when he found an Alzheimer’s patient missing for three days in the woods. Calianno found her, and the woman later stopped by the hangar with a family member to say thanks.
More recently, and closer to home, the aviation unit helped catch a woman accused of stealing $400 from a Wendy’s restaurant at 1100 S. Broad St. in January.
Amber Brown, 33, walked up to the restaurant’s counter and asked for a piece of paper, Brooksville police said. She wrote down two demands for money and threatened to shoot the clerk if she didn’t receive it, an arrest report shows. Brown left the restaurant and ran through the Quarry Golf Course. The sheriff’s flight crew and K-9 team found the pair as they left the wooded area.
A gun never was recovered, but the ransom note was, the reports states. “We strive to catch the bad guys,” Calianno said of the case.
Brown since has been convicted of the robbery charge and sentenced to four years in prison, as well as additional charges of grand theft and uttering forged bills. A man who police said was with Brown was not prosecuted, court records show.
Looking forward, Calianno said, he hopes to acquire new tracking technology that will help even more with chasing down bad guys and finding people who are missing.
"Newer technology is undoubtedly and unquestioningly the way we need to do business," Calianno said. “You get so much more out of the equipment.”
Until then, Calianno uses his iPad and other tech tools for mapping and weather when he is flying in the older choppers. It does the trick, and is in keeping with his central goal for the unit: “being operationally ready while being fiscally responsible.”