Police Helicopter Pilot

Helicopter Aviation & Beyond:

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First year as Tactical Flight Officer starts with a bang!

A common question for a law enforcement officer is “have you ever had to use your gun?” For me the answer is no. In fact in my first 20 years of working as a deputy sheriff I had not even been at the scene of an officer involved shooting. That all changed my first year in the air unit!

In San Diego County our air unit patrols 15 incorporated cities, (not including the City of San Diego) and about 17 unincorporated communities. When there is a high priority call such as a shooting, stabbing, pursuit, etc., in any one of these cities we get the call. (San Diego PD has their own very capable air unit who also assist other agencies. SDPD and San Diego Sheriff’s air units will also assist each other when one is not available.)

In about a 4-6 month period in 2005 I found myself on scene as the Tactical Flight Officer as four separate officer involved shootings unfolded 500’ below me. Three of these shootings were fatal for the suspect(s). One suspect survived a .223 round (or a significant fragment from it) to the back of the head, to see his day in court.

The point of these stories is not to be boastful. But this is police work and this is a website about police work. Furthermore, I certainly had no control over the actions of these suspects that lead to their deaths. But like it or not, I was the “eye in the sky” on each of these incidents and did my best to provide updates to the communications center, and to the officers and deputies on the ground.

One of these incidents stands out as one of the most memorable calls I have been on during my still short career in the air unit, which is the running gun battle between a robbery suspect and San Diego Police. But first a quick look at the other three incidents.

This first incident involved a burglary and auto theft suspect high on meth and already covered with prison tattoos. He was so high that he made little attempt to hide his activities as he committed a string of day time burglaries, attempted burglaries and an auto theft all on one particular morning in the unincorporated area of Escondido Ca. The pilot and I both spotted the suspect vehicle as it approached the first responding Sheriff’s patrol car. A short pursuit ensued.

After ramming the gate of a private residence and becoming trapped, the suspect began ramming the deputy’s patrol car, with the stolen truck. Fearing for his life the patrol deputy deployed his AR-15 rifle and began delivering .223 rounds to the driver’s area of the vehicle. With a gunshot wound to the back of the head yet fully conscious, the suspect elected to exit the vehicle and prone himself out on the ground to prevent further injury.

As luck would have it the wide open driveway where the incident was unfolding allowed for a nice landing zone directly behind the deputy’s patrol car. Since the deputy was still without a cover unit, the pilot put the helicopter down long enough for me to climb out and assist the ground unit in cuffing the suspect and clearing the vehicle. Surgeons later confirmed with investigators that the suspect had taken a round, or a significant portion of the round to the back of the head, but it wrapped around the skull instead of entering it.

In the next incident deputies in the City of Vista became involved in a lengthy foot pursuit of a suspected gang member who was wanted for auto theft. They had also received information that he was carrying a gun. We arrived overhead soon after deputies got him boxed inside a perimeter. The suspect fought with a Sheriff’s canine, and then confronted one of the pursuing deputies. Instead of following orders to lie on the ground the suspect reached for an item on his hip, concealed by his shirt. A very stupid decision, which was most likely influenced by the methamphetamine that lab test later, confirmed was in his system. He did not survive the one round fired by the deputy in self defense.

Still another incident occurred in National City Ca., close to the border of the City of San Diego, and unincorporated Bonita. A suspect armed with both a gun and a knife, lead National City Police on an early morning pursuit, eventually driving back to the parking lot of a motel where the pursuit began. A two hour standoff ensued during which time the suspect could be seen stabbing the interior of the vehicle with a knife. At one point I was able to catch a glimpse of the handgun through the stabilized binoculars carried on board the helicopter.

As the SWAT team was about to deploy, the suspect started his vehicle and squeezed by a police car. A 5 mph pursuit followed with the suspect driving his vehicle through the front gates of a cemetery, and almost out the back gate before being blocked in. The suspect and the SWAT team were now in a traffic stop configuration. A tear gas round was introduced through the back window of the vehicle. The suspect turned in his seat, pointed the handgun toward the officers, and fired one round. This was clearly a suicide by cop. But when you take a shot at a SWAT team you should expect a significant response. Again I watched from above as over 70 rounds slammed into the suspect vehicle with many finding their target. The amount of rounds fired did create controversy and significant press coverage. The handgun turned out to be a pellet gun.

Early one afternoon I was flying with Deputy-Pilot Greg Joyce south bound over the City of Poway Ca., when the regional air frequency crackled. It was San Diego Police advising they were in pursuit of a robbery suspect in the Skyline area of the city. SDPD dispatch also advised that their helicopter, ABLE 1 was not flying at the moment.

I switched over to the SDPD primary frequency and the very first thing I heard was an officer shouting into the radio “he’s shooting at me again”. Well if there is a higher stress, higher priority, or more critically important radio call than a rolling gun battle between officers and suspect, I don’t know what it is. This is “the” call, this is why you and your partner are flying around in an expensive sheriff’s department helicopter.

The pilot pulled in collective and nosed over the helicopter until the needles on both the turbine outlet temp gauge and the torque gauge were maxed out. We were going as fast as our MD 500D will go at this point in time, about 120 mph. The pilot gets a south bound mid-field crossing at Gillespie Field, our home base, and we shoot over to the unincorporated area of Spring Valley. While we are still en-route the pursuing police officers momentarily lose the vehicle, a black Honda Civic. As the cockpit filled with exclamations I heard an officer come up on the air and advised “I’ve got the vehicle east bound Paradise Valley Rd”. Things were turning in our favor as the pursuit was now coming toward us.

As we rounded Mount Helix and then Dictionary Hill I caught site of the black Honda and the trail of squad cars as they turned onto west bound South Bay Freeway from Jamacha. I didn’t have to wait long before I saw the driver extend his hand and a gun out the window and take additional shots at the pursuing police cars.

Aside from the safety of the pursuing officers my most overriding thought at this time was “I can not screw this up”. I did not want to be the TFO who somehow lost the suspect vehicle, or the suspect who had been shooting at police for the last 10 minutes!

The Honda soon exited the freeway and returned to surface streets back in the City of San Diego. I watched and advised dispatch as the pursuit approached what appeared to be an elementary or middle school. Thankfully the pursuit passed the school without incident.

Next I saw two squad cars who had positioned themselves several blocks ahead of the pursuit, near an intersection. I could tell that they could not actually see the pursuit which was approaching them from the right, on the cross street in front of them. If the officers stayed in the vehicle and the suspect turned onto their street, it would put their driver’s door only a few feet from the suspect’s driver’s door on the narrow residential street. A position no officer would want to be in.

I radioed a quick warning to the two officers that the suspect vehicle was right around the corner and to “watch out”. Sure enough the suspect vehicle made a left onto their street as the two officers dove behind their patrol cars for cover. I am quite sure that this was one of the numerous locations where officers and the suspect exchanged gunfire. I felt very good that as a helicopter crew we were in a position to observe and relay immediate and critical information that may have helped to protect an officer from serious injury or death.

The pursuit continued for several more blocks until the suspect vehicle ran over a sign in the center median then rolled to a stop in the street. My first thought was that the suspect must have been hit during the last exchange of gunfire back at the corner. As police units rolled up behind the vehicle, more gunfire erupted from the Honda driver. A final volley of rounds brought the rolling gun battle to a final end. Thankfully no police officers were hit by gunfire. On the news that night I watched as citizens described to reporters how the suspect was laughing and grinning as he passed them on the streets, moments before he was finally stopped. I am quite sure that drug use was a significant factor in each of these cases.

Click here for a follow up story from the San Diego Union Tribune on this incident.

Well that’s a look at my first year as a Tactical Flight Officer. Thankfully though, I don’t have to watch someone get shot every time I go on a call. There are plenty of lost hikers, missing kids, and run of the mill criminal activity to break it up.