Police Helicopter Pilot

Helicopter Aviation & Beyond:

We take you inside the cockpit of law enforcement helicopters around the world while sharing knowledge and insight on how to become a police or sheriff helicopter pilot.

Rescue of Rock Climbers Trapped by Fire- Tests Limits of San Diego Sheriff Helicopter Crew,

 

The phone has been ringing off the hook at ASTREA base since Sunday morning, with news reporters from around the county trying to get their hands, or their cameras, on any breathing deputy involved in the dramatic rescue of two rock climbers on Saturday afternoon.  In reality there were more than just 2 people rescued from a sudden raging wildfire that broke out near the south base of El Cajon Mountain at around 1:30 pm. 

Just to remind readers, the San Diego Sheriff's Department, in addition to operating 5 law enforcement patrol helicopters, operate 2 medium lift Fire/Rescue helicopters in conjunction with Cal-Fire, (formerly California Department of Forestry.)  What this means is the two Bell 205++ (Huey) helicopters are owned by the County of San Diego, piloted by sworn deputy sheriff pilots, with a Cal-Fire Captain occupying the left front seat, and a full Cal-Fire Heli-attack crew in the back, (on one of the ships).  It is a joint operation that has proven to be not only harmonious, but a very effective fire fighting asset. 

To set the stage;  El Cajon Mountain, (also known to many locals as El Capitan Mountain) lies just about 5 miles east of Lakeside California.  It is bordered on one side by El Capitan Reservoir, the obvious source for the confusion of whether it is El Cajon Mountain or simply "El Cap."  The mountain rises to a height of roughly 3,675' with a distinct rock face on the south side which is very popular in the rock climbing community.  In fact "El Cap" is one of the most recognizable mountains all of San Diego County often serving as a navigational landmark for those return flights to ASTREA Base from east county, particularly when flying at night on NVGs.  

When the call of a "vegetation" fire came over the fire radios, Deputies Dave Weldon and Gene Palos responded with their Cal-Fire counterparts in Copters 10 & 12.  At about the same time, the Sheriff's patrol helicopter crew, Deputies Scott Bligh and Gary Kneeshaw were advised of two rock climbers who were on the side of El Cajon Mountain.  The two climbers, a male and a female, had called 911 on their cell phone and advised that they were on the rock face above the fire, and were OK for now, but they wanted authorities to know they were there.  Deputies Weldon and Palos, en-route in their fire helicopters also received this information.  

Due to the amount of fire aircraft that would soon be flooding into the area, and the fact that the 2 rock climbers indicated they were OK for now, the ASTREA patrol helicopter crew elected to stay out of the area and monitor the radio traffic.  

Fire Pilots Palos and Weldon were some of the first fire fighting aircraft to arrive in the area.  As they sized up the fire they received another report of 8 people on a ranch on top of El Cajon Mountain who were afraid that they were going to soon be trapped by the fire.  Deputy Weldon pointed his Bell 205 helicopter toward the ranch which sets on a grassy and beautiful plateau on the south east side of El Cajon Mountain.  As Weldon touched down on the ranch he noticed that the group consisted largley of younger children, and older adults.  He got the feeling that there were a few grandparents and grandkids in the group.  Weldon loaded the first 4 people on and headed for El Monte Campground at the south base of the mountain.  

At some point during the short flight Deputy Weldon asked the communications center to check on the 2 rock climbers, and see if they were OK.  Monte Vista Fire dispatch came up on the air and advised that they had just received a call from the two climbers, who advised that they were now in fear of being overrun by the fire.  Weldon dropped off the first 4 people at the camp ground and started the flight back for the next 4 people waiting at the ranch.  The climbers originally advised that they were 3/4 of the way up the mountain, in the rocks.  On the return flight, Weldon and his Cal-Fire partner Tod Ocarrol looked for the two climbers, but did not see them on the vast south face of the mountain.  Weldon began prodding the Comm. Center to see if a lat & long was recorded on any of the 911 calls that the climbers had made.  Many cell phones today are equipped with the technology to provide latitude and longitude coordinates to authorities or to the cell phone company.  Deputy Weldon remained persistent at requesting coordinates from the cell phone.  Eventually, one of the dispatch centers, possibly Monte Vista advised that they did in fact have some possible coordinates for the phone. 

In the mean time Weldon picked up the second group of four people from the ranch and flew them down to El Monte Park.  They now plugged the lat and long coordinates into the Aero Computers Moving Map on board the helicopter, and instantly had a promising location for the climbers 2 1/2 miles north east of El Monte Park.  Weldon and Ocarrol knew that the distance and heading to the lat & long coordinates would put them directly on the south face of the mountain, and strong indication that the coordinates were valid!    

While Weldon and his partner were working to pinpoint the position of the two trapped climbers, the crew of ASTREA 1, Pilot Scott Bligh and TFO Gary Kneeshaw, elected to launch and do what they could to assist.  Both Bligh and Kneeshaw knew that their smaller MD530F helicopter could perform "toe in" or "one skid" rescues in areas where the larger fire/rescue helicopter could not get into.  The added benefit is that they could also do this much quicker than performing a full on hoist rescue using the larger aircraft.

Weldon and Captain Ocarrol flew directly to the lat and long coordinated pinpointed on their Aero Computers moving map and almost immediately located the to trapped climbers on a rock ledge, with the fire moving toward them.  Over the fire aircraft radios Weldon called a halt to fire fighting efforts, declared an emergency on the fire frequencies, and cleared the immediate area of all other aircraft.  He then positioned his helicopter into a high hover directly over the two climbers.  Weldon now communicated his position and the position of the hikers to the crew of ASTREA 1. 

Deputy Bligh wasted no time in performing a toe in landing near the two climbers, allowing Kneeshaw to exit the helicopter and place the female climber in the right front seat that he just vacated.  While the smaller MD500s are perfect for this type of work, the only drawback is that the people being rescued often have to be flown out one at a time.  This is due to both weight and balance issues, and most often the fact that the front seat is the only seat accessible to load a passenger when the helicopter is performing a toe in landing, (as the back of the skids are generally hanging off the side of the mountain or rock face.)

This is an untouched photo of Bligh performing the first toe in to pick up the female climber. Look closly for the helicopter near the black dot.Deputy Bligh backed away from the rock face and began following the mountainous terrain through the smoke toward, El Monte Park, to drop off his passenger.  Back in the air he began to make his way through the smoky haze to the spot where Deputy Kneeshaw and the male hiker waited to be picked up.  It is around this point in time when the rescue operation made a dramatic turn from being an above average-difficult rescue, to being a true life threatening- almost near death experience for the three remaining participants, Bligh, Kneeshaw, and the male rock climber.

While Bligh had been dropping of the female climber, the fire below Kneeshaw and the remaining climber began to roll up the mountain face very rapidly, whipped by westerly winds.  Kneeshaw, fearing that he was about to be overrun by the flames, began transmitting the emergency over the regional air frequency.  Deputy Kneeshaw and the rock climber, now partners in survival began to make their way laterally across the face of the mountain to try to out manuveur the fire, but could only move a short distance before their path became blocked by the rugged terrain.  Deputy Bligh navigated his way toward Kneeshaw's location as rapidly as his helicopter's turbine engine and the reduced visibility would allow, while Deputy Weldon and Cal-Fire Capt. Ocarrol attempted to throw Kneeshaw a lifeline in the form of where best to take shelter if being overrun by the fire.  Weldon also began calling for other Fire Fighting helicopters to make water drops on the fire immediately below Kneeshaw's position.  Deputy Gene Palos was moving into position to make the first water drop when Bligh announced over the air that he had Kneeshaw and the male climber in sight.  Deputy Palos aborted his water drop and moved out of the area to allow Bligh to move in for another toe in landing. 

By this time Deputy Weldon has lost sight of Kneeshaw on the rock ledge as the smoke from the advancing fire had rolled over the top of their location. 

Deputy Kneeshaw looked up to finally see a yellow light coming toward him through the smoky haze.  It was the landing light on the front of his patrol helicopter coming back to get him. 

Deputy Bligh fought through the smoke, tearing-burning eyes, and embers hitting his face to effect the toe in landing.   But the wildfire environment had not played it's final card.  As Bligh made his approach to the rock ledge he was hit with a powerful gust of wind most likely created by the fire itself.  The wind turned the helicopter almost a full 180 degrees demanding the addition of power and the application of tons of left pedal (which also demands even more power) in order to control the aircraft.  The sudden application of that much power caused a condition known as "rotor droop" where the rotor rpm droops.  This droop in rpm sets off warning bells and whistles in the cockpit know as the "engine out" or "low rotor rpm" warning light and audible tone.  In a nutshell it sends a message to the pilot that you may have just lost your engine and are about to crash.  Under normal flight conditions this warning light and tone is enough to make one's heart skip a beat.   But under the circumstances Deputy Bligh was faced with it would take all of his mental focus and determination to maintian his situational awareness, control the helicopter, and make the determination that he still had a working engine and an airworthy helicopter. 

Deputy Bligh placed the front of the helicopter's skids against the face of the mountain while Deputy Kneeshaw shoved the rock climber into the empty TFO seat.  Kneeshaw took up a standing position on the right skid abeam the opened cockpit door, securing himself by holding onto the external and internal hand holds.  Not wanting to be left behind again he shouted at Bligh to "Go!"  The now rescued rock climber further secured Kneeshaw to the helicopter by grasping on to the front of his gunbelt.  Once again Bligh backed the 530F away from the rock face and used the mountain terrain to guide his way through the smoke and to the safety of El Monte Park and solid ground. 

In aircraft accident investigations it is common to identify numerous "links"  in the chain of events that led up to the accident.  But the same is also true when a challenging and very difficult rescue such as this is performed without injury and without damage to equipment.  There were many things in the chain of events that led to a positive outcome and a successful rescue in this situation.  It had the potential to be much worse for everyone involved. 

It is sometimes easy to think that being a member of a law enforcement or fire/rescue helicopter crew is all fun and games.  I think Deputies Bligh and Kneeshaw would beg to differ.  

Outstanding job by everyone involved!    

Look for these guys to be at least be front runners for next years ALEA air crew of the year award.        

Rescues By San Diego Sheriff's ASTREA Unit Highlighted In 10 News Report

Unfortunately 10 News does not allow me to imbed the video here, but it is worth clicking on the below link and watching.  The report focuses primarily on Cedar Creek Falls in Eastern San Diego County, which accounts for a large portion of the rescues we do.  Also featured in the video report is Senior Fire/Rescue Pilot Tony Webber. 

The report only shows our Bell 205 Fire/Rescue helicopters, but plenty of rescues are still conduced in our unit with the smaller MD500 Ships as well.  Good job Tony!

http://www.10news.com/video/24528561/

 

Outlaw Country Music Singers, Marijuana & Helicopters

Net full of marijuana being hauled away by helicopter. Tony Webber photo.I have often said that there is nothing better than a great Country & Western song, and there is nothing worse than a bad Country & Western song.  Whether you are a big fan of county music or not, Jamey Johnson's first single off of his THAT LONESOME SONG album, "In Color" is powerful and pure enough to send chills up ones spine. 

With his biker beard and the occasional mention of marijuana in a song or two, he can certainly give the impression of a hell raising outlaw musician.  But then anyone who can write and perform a song such as "In Color", a tribute to Grandfathers, War Vets, and even Marriage, can't be all bad.  In fact on GAC's Jamey Johnson bio page the performer is described as having the "looks of a hellraiser but the heart of a poet."  It is true that Jamey Johnson's first performances were in small country churches along side his father.  And while he may have had a deep woods upbringing, he is a formally trained musician. 

If you are still not sure who Jamey Johnson is, then perhaps you might recognize the CMA and ACM 2007 Song of The Year that he co-wrote, "Give it Away" recorded by George Straight.  But that is not the first or the last song Jamey has written or co-written for country musicians.  You can add Trace Adkins' "Ladies Love Country Boys" to that list. 

So San Diego's Viejas Casino Dreamcatcher Lounge seemed like the perfect close up venue to see Jamey Johnson perfom "In Color".  Sure there were plenty of biker beards on display in the audience, but in all honesty I had been in worse crowds at the grocery store.  Even when the first lyric about smoking pot in the church parking lot flows from the stage, the context is about how "the high cost of living is nothing like the cost of living high."  Not particularly glorifying the use of marijuana.  Oh, and seeing Jamey Johnson perfom In Color-live, lived up to all of it's expectations. 

Finally, when Jamey began singing a song about growing weed out behind the house, cheers of approval rose from the audience.  What did I do?  I just smiled, because the following morning I would be earning time and a half while "slinging dope" in our local mountains: Doing my part to help those suffering from the Cost of Living High! 

 

Deputy D. Weldon flying by vertical reference while performing marijuana long line operations. Photo by T. Webber. 

Tactical Pants.com Interviews the Host of Police Helicopter Pilot.com

A while back I was contacted by a lady who writes the blog for www.tacticalpants.com  asking if I would be interested in doing a small interview.  Of course I said yes right away.  Any publicity is good publicity right?  What caught me by surprise was just how well the blog was written.  Who would have thought a blog about Tactical Pants would be at all interesting?  Well I can tell you this lady does a fantastic job.  Worthy of checking out.  Makes me want to go buy a pair of tactical pants! 

Here is a thought though.  I am a huge fan of cargo pants.  But trying to find good looking cargo pants at a reasonable price is almost a full time job.  Perhaps I sould start looking for tactical pants instead of cargo pants? 

Here is a link to the interview at the Tactical Pants Blog. 

Sheriff's Helicopter Crew Finds Luckiest Man Alive- Guest Article

This article was submitted by Deputy/Pilot S. Bligh of the San Diego Sheriff's Department.  It originally appeared in the San Diego Deputy Sheriff's Association- Silver Star magazine. 

 

The canyon in San Diego's vast east county where this rescue took place, now referred to as "Lucky Bastard Canyon."

View From Above
ASTREA by Scott Bligh

The Luckiest Man Alive

This incident begins with the ASTREA fire/rescue helicopter fighting a brush fire in the eastern part of San Diego County near the Carrizo Wash.  While transitioning between the fire and their water source several miles away, the helicopter crew noticed something on the ground near the base of a palm tree.  Moving in for a closer look they first noticed a back pack and then noticed something similar in color to a fire fighter’s protective clothing, (possibly left behind from a previous fire fighting effort.)  Upon closer inspection, the protective clothing wasn’t clothing at all, but the remains of a human body.  There really wasn’t much left actually and it’s amazing the crew could even see it.  The scene was little reminiscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean only without the ocean.

This guy was obviously not the luckiest man alive but if not for him, the real luckiest man alive may not be alive today.  Read on.

As is always the case with a found body, a deputy assumes the death investigation, notifies the medical examiner investigator who comes out to look at the body and scene before it can be recovered.  It was too late in the day to round up all the players and get this done before dark so the decision was made to get the ball rolling early the next day.

The next morning, Medical Examiner Investigator Mark Malamatos arrived at ASTREA base, ready for his flight into the canyon where the body lay.  We found the canyon easy enough.  It was the one that was obviously charred from the previous day’s fire.  The GPS coordinates didn’t hurt either.  We then began the search for the grove of palms where the unlucky guy made his last stand.

We were flying down the canyon, later determined to be in the wrong direction, when Mark said, “I think there’s a guy down there who needs rescuing.”  I thought, “Great he found the body” and started to figure out a way to get us turned around in the narrow canyon.  Mark explained, “No, there’s a guy down there who’s still alive.”  Huh?

We slowly worked our way back up the canyon until coming to a bunch of tall reeds.  There wasn’t much wind in the canyon yet, but a few of those reeds were shaking like crazy.  We flew over the top of the wildly shaking reeds and there he was.  An international traveler flat on his back on the canyon floor shaking those reeds for all he was worth.  What are the odds?  A fire happens.  A helicopter crew arrives to put out the fire.  They just so happen to see a backpack.  A body happens to be next to the backpack.  A crew returns the next day with a medical examiner investigator and the helicopter crew searches for the body in the wrong location.  While searching in the wrong location, the medical examiner investigator looks out his window and sees wildly shaking reeds followed by a guy flat on his back.  Sweet Jesus, this guy needs to start playing the lottery.

So our “business as usual” body recovery via 100 foot cable and cargo net had turned into a rescue mission.

Step 1; kick out the M.E. Investigator-Mark at the bottom of the canyon and wish him well in the 100 degree heat with no shade.  We did, however, have the decency to leave Mark next to one of those water stations set up to assist the illegal immigrants in their quest to circumvent our immigration laws.  There was at least 20 gallons of store bought Borrego Springs drinking water there.  Good stuff.  I digress.

Step 2; drop Deputy Kaupe, hereafter referred to as Alan, on the canyon wall next to the “Lucky Guy.”  Alan determined Lucky was in no shape to make his way anywhere under his own power.  He had been flat on his back, where he lay, for the last 2 days, and had a barely detectable pulse of 166 beats per minute.  Lucky was running on fumes.  

Step 3; get Sheriff’s Copter 10, one of the Bell 205 fire rescue/helicopters, and the sheriff’s fuel truck heading this way for the only recourse, a hoist rescue.

After being an aerial communications relay between all involved and Alan, and noticing the rapidly building thunderstorms coming in from the south, I dropped in to check on Mark and let him know what was going on.  I may have also mentioned to him what I mentioned to Alan.  In case the heavens open up and releases a downpour upon us, start building your ark now.  Or at least move high up on the canyon walls to avoid the inevitable flash flooding.  On the bright side though, there was the non-stop lighting show in all directions which helped keep my mind off the flooding possibility.

Step 4; leave Alan, Mark and Lucky to fend for themselves and head for the McCain Fire Camp at the south end of McCain Valley off I-8 to meet with Copter 10 and prepare for the hoist rescue.  I briefed the hoist rescue with our Cal Fire brothers, who are trained to operate with us, and we made our way back to the canyon in the Bell 205.  Because Lucky was down for the count, we decided to hoist him in a basket as opposed to a harness for somebody who doesn’t resemble a wet noodle.  As soon as he was on board we again waved goodbye to Alan and Mark, wished them well with their arks, and made our way back to the McCain Fire Camp to pass Lucky off to waiting medical folks.

I’m not sure how well Lucky is doing but we did muster up the courage to fight the lightning storm and complete Step 5; the pick up of Alan and Mark.  They did not get washed away and we were not struck by lightning.  Life is good.

I think all involved agree, if the canyon had a name before that day, it has now been changed.  It will now be called “Lucky Bastard Canyon.”

What's The Best Kind Of Mistake To Make In Helicopter Aviation?

My first solo in a Civic Helicopters Schweizer 300 I was asked by someone recently what one of my worst decisions, or worst mistakes was during flight school.  Well it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision but there was this thing with the oil dipstick one day.  It went something like this.  

When it’s time for a member of our unit to start helicopter flight training they usually get a little bit of in house training from our own CFI’s, then they are then sent out to Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad Ca. for full time flight training up until they are a commercial VFR helicopter pilot.  Their training will take place exclusively in the Schweizer 300 piston powered helicopter since it is the closest training helicopter to what we fly, the MD500 series, (both previously Hughes Helicopter products).   It is sort of an unwritten right of passage for the helicopter pilot in training to at some point stop in at the base in his piston powered trainer, along with his CFI during training.  Just a fun way to check back in with the guys and humble yourself in your little reciprocating flying machine.  

I was at a point in my training where I was close to my private check ride so I had completed several solo flights, but neither my title nor experience even rose to the level of “private pilot.”   Even though I had already made one appearance at my unit base, I actually needed to stop in and grab a couple of items for my upcoming check ride.  Plus this would also give me another hour or so of solo time toward completing that portion of required flight time.  It was a Friday, and it was going to be an evening flight since that was when the helicopter was available.  It would be a quick flight to ASTREA base, grab what I needed, and a quick flight back to Palomar Airport before the sun was down.  If there were any significant delays getting off the ground, it would throw my whole schedule out of whack.  As a solo student pilot I absolutely had to be back on the ground before dark.  

Just as I feared things started falling a little behind schedule.  The previous student was a little late coming back from his flight, the fuel truck driver was a little slow getting the helicopter re-fueled for me, etc.  I commenced my pre-flight knowing that I was definitely on a time schedule, but not wanting to rush.  I actually reminded myself several times not to rush, because that is when things get missed, and when things can go wrong.  I had read all of the stories about people rushing their pre-flight inspections or the actual flight, and bad things happening.  I was very aware of the pitfalls of speeding through a pre-flight.

As expected the helicopter needed some oil.  It would have been extremely rare if it did not need oil.  That’s just the nature of piston engine helicopters.  Here is where things started to go down the wrong track.

Now Civic had three different Schweizer 300 helicopters in their fleet but normally only one or two would be flown at any given time while the third one waited in reserve.  It was not uncommon to fly the exact helicopter for several weeks before you made a switch.  Two of their 300s had the extra long oil dipstick so that the handle could be positioned in a location easy access.  The third Schweizer did not have the extension, so it was a very short dipstick and you had to kneel down and reach back in to the engine to remove it.  The helicopter I was flying today was the one with the short dipstick, but I was coming off of several weeks of flying a helicopter with the long dipstick.  My habit had always been to lay the long dipstick on the pilot’s step while I added oil.  This way, It was almost impossible for me to forget the dipstick as I would have to either step on it, or step over it in order to enter the pilot seat.  So far it had been a fool proof method.  

On this pre-flight when I removed the short dipstick and confirmed that the helicopter needed oil I did something slightly different.  Attached to the inside of the pilot’s step on this helicopter was a small tray or shelf.  It was flush with the pilot‘s step but shorter.  For whatever reason my mind must have thought that the shorter dipstick fit better on this shorter tray, than it did on the pilot’s step.  With hardly a conscious thought I placed the dipstick on the tray next to the pilot’s step.  

To place oil in this particular helicopter one had to utilize a funnel with a long tube.  The oil itself was pumped out of a 50 gal drum into a reusable metal oil can which had a flexible spout and a trigger to release the oil.  Slightly more involved than putting oil in the old Toyota.  The big question here is why would you not replace the dipstick immediately after filling the crankcase?  Well one hand was holding the oil can, and the other hand the funnel and an oil rag.  If was easier and cleaner to store the funnel and can back in the oil shed, then return to replace the dipstick and tidy up any oil drops on the helicopter airframe.  This system had worked perfect up until today.  

Pre-check complete, engine run up, got ATIS, tower clearance for a south departure and I was soon clearing the trees and power lines as I climbed out and pointed toward Gillespie Field.  Actual flight time between the two airports was barely going to be 20 minutes.  The helicopter’s  instruments were normal as I called up Gillespie Tower and received landing clearance to ASTREA base.  And all appeared well as I focused on making that perfect landing on pad #1, just in case any of my co-workers were watching.  After a minute or so of cool down I cut the engine and prepared to exit the helicopter.  I was still feeling confident in my solo abilities, when I noticed one of our maintenance technicians- head cocked to the side with a funny look on his face, staring at my helicopter.  Oh this can’t be good……

I stepped out of the helicopter and viewed what might as well have been the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill as far as I was concerned.  Oil everywhere!  Every imaginable part of the left rear airframe was covered with oil and it was now dripping down onto the concrete landing pad from about 100 different points.   As I sank deeper into student pilot depression, co-workers, and mechanics began to stream out of the building to see what the side show was all about.  

Now this is the point where you must convince everyone present that you  (me) fully understand and take responsibility for the stupidity of your mistake.  I find that a long string of inappropriate language directed at myself usually does the trick.  Seriously though, all one can do is say “yup I screwed that one up big time!”  And then set about figuring out how and why it occurred and what changes need to be made to ensure that it never happens again.  

I remember making that phone call to my flight instructor back at Civic to appraise him of the blunder.  A thorough check of the flight line and the adjacent dirt lot (which was also under the departing flight path) failed to produce the missing dipstick.  My training helicopter would have to remain on the ramp overnight at the base, fully advertising my screw up to anyone who was not already 10-4 on it.  I caught a ride back up to Civic Helicopters in the back seat of the duty patrol helicopter , feeling much like a cowboy without a horse or perhaps a sailor without a ship.  The following day the Civic maintenance department dug out a back up dipstick from storage and flew it down with an extra pilot and some extra oil to retrieve the helicopter.  

Nothing damaged, no one injured, and one more lesson learned.  The best kind of mistake to make in aviation.  Somewhere between KCRQ and KSEE there is an expensive Lycoming HIO-360-D1A
dipstick waiting to be found.  
 

Massive Midnight Power Outage Proves Eerie Experience For Sheriff's Helicopter Crew.

Night flying whether in a civilian or law enforcement aircraft is often very enjoyable.  The air is smooth, there is generally less air traffic, many control towers are closed, and the city lights can almost appear as diamonds spilled onto a carpet of black velvet for the eyes to behold. 

For low level night pilots these lights make up distinct patterns that the brain becomes dependant upon for instantly calculating your altitude, location, and direction of travel, along with the helicopter's instruments of course.  Neighborhoods, mountains, malls, streets, freeways, buildings and towers are illuminated or outlined by lights providing constant feedback to the senses.  All of these lighting cues are then greatly enhanced by donning a pair of night vision goggles.  I have often thought how much more difficult night time navigation would be if there was a total and complete blackout in the area you are flying over. 

Well shortly after midnight last night my partner and I experienced just that when a massive power outage began spreading across San Diego County.  According to SDGE the California Independent System Operator asked them to curtail 310 mega watts of power due to an emergency in the power grid.  The exact emergency was not identified at the time. 

We were working a missing person call over Casa De Oro when I glanced west toward Lemon Grove.  Instead of seeing the familiar lights of Lemon Grove however I saw what my brain told me was New York's Central Park at night time.  A large swath of darkness bordered by lights on all sides.  It takes a couple of seconds to figure out why the view out of the cockpit doesn't look like it is supposed to, or like it did on the last orbit.  We watched as the blackout spread to large parts of Spring Valley, Imperial Beach, Mount Helix, portions of El Cajon, all of downtown Lakeside and parts of La Mesa.  At least those were the communities that we could see were effected, from our vantage point in the helicopter.

While I never lost situational awareness, and there was never a total and complete blackout, the loss of large swaths of ground lights without question demanded slightly greater focus.  A quick check of the altimeter revealed that the helicopter had surreptitiously entered auto climb and I was now flying 300' higher than I was a few minutes ago.  One of the little tricks your brain pulls on you when you start denying it the visual cues it is used to receiving.  It was not all bad as the near full moon and the NVG's revealed plenty of the darkened terrain and city below, just in a different format. 

My TFO partner announced what was without question about to occurr.  The onslaught of commercial burglary alarms that were going to flood into the communications center and out to the field units due to power interruption.  Sure enough, we only had to wait a few minutes for the first bank vault alarm to come in. 

After about 30-40 minutes of monitoring the dark areas and assisting on alarm calls, we watched as the lights came back on one neighborhood at a time.  It was quite a unique show and with the possible exception of the SDPD ABLE helicopter crew, we had the best seat in the house. 

"10-9 Was That A Hot Prowl Burglary Or A Hot Owl Burglary?"

I don't know about the rest of the country but in California a "Hot Prowl" burglary is police lingo for a burglary that is occurring while the homeowner is present inside the home.  This type of burglary is not that uncommon.  It typically happens in the day time when a burglar thinks the residents are away for the day.  Perhaps he knocked on the front door, didn't get an immediate response from inside the home, so he feels safe to break and enter and begin fulfilling his thieving ambitions.  There are times however when the homeowner is fully cognizant of the fact that someone is breaking in, and they have retreated upstairs or to a back bedroom and locked themselves in, while dialing 911.  That is how your typical hot prowl burglary unfolds.

So there we were last week, 20 minutes before "end of shift" when the radio crackled and we were requested for a "hot prowl" in Bonita, a somewhat upscale community in the South Bay.  Now hot prowl burglaries do occur at night also, but they are more rare, and they are a different breed.  A night time residential burglar should have an expectation that the homeowner is actually home.  Some night time burglars are driven by perverse sexual fantasies, while others seek the thrill and danger of breaking into a home and committing their criminal acts under the noses of the sleeping residents.

While it is foolish and even dangerous to make assumptions, it is also human nature and "cop nature" to rapidly process and to some extent make judgements on all the pieces of information flowing in about a certain call.  Tiny bits of information combined with years of patrol experience and sometimes a little intuition can often give the street cop a good idea if a call is ultimately going to be valid, or bogus.  Either way, you respond to the call as if it is 100% valid until you know absolutely otherwise.

Day or night, a hot prowl burglary is an emergency.  We wasted no time strapping ourselves into the helicopter and getting a south departure from runway 17/35.  It was coming up on 2:00 am when we arrived on scene.  The two story home was now completely surrounded by deputies, at least one Sheriff's K9, and now a Sheriff's helicopter orbiting 700' overhead.  Dispatch was still on land-line with the caller, who advised that they were still hearing noises coming from inside their house, downstairs. 

This is where cop intuition dangerously starts to suggest that this call might not be valid.  What are the chances that all of the patrol deputies, the K9 handler, and the helicopter could get on scene and set up while the hot prowl burglar is still inside the house.  No, in a real burglary the suspect would have been fleeing over the back fence just prior to the first deputy arriving on scene.   That's just the way these things tend to go down. 

The patrol deputies continue to do an excellent job of gathering intel from the caller as they have all along, via dispatch.  Who else is supposed to be in the house?  Do they have any children?  Were they expecting anyone else?  Etc.  All of the responses indicated that no one else should be there.  There is one daughter who is at a friends house.  Deputies obtain a description of the daughter's car and confirm that it is not in the driveway.  

A deputy advises that he can see "movement" in the downstairs portion of the house, through a window.  Silence.

Then, Deputy:  "Ask the caller if they own a bird of any kind."  Dispatch:  "Negative, the R/P is saying they do not own any type of bird."  Silence.

At last, Deputy:  "Ok, advise the R/P that they have a very large barn owl inside their house."

Exactly how the owl gained entry is unknown to this writer.

Hot owl burglary?  I guess that depends on the criminal intent of the owl. 

Enstrom Helicopters Wins Royal Thai Army Contract

There are a number of law enforcement agencies around the country who operate Enstrom Helicopters.  So while this press release is regarding a military contract, I thought it would be informative for anyone who wanted to know a little more about Enstrom Helicopters.

Enstrom 480 Turbine Powered Helicopter

Menominee MI, February 15, 2010 – Enstrom Helicopter Corporation would like to announce that they will be providing16 480B advanced turbine training helicopters for the Royal Thai Army.  The 480B was selected in a competitive bidding process that included aircraft from 7 different major manufacturers.  In October Enstrom hosted a delegation of officials from the Royal Thai Army led by Major General Pittaya Krachangwong, who came to Menominee to inspect Enstrom’s manufacturing facilities and fly the different models of Enstrom helicopters.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be working with the Royal Thai Army,” said Jerry Mullins, Enstrom’s President and CEO.  “The 480B turbine helicopter was originally designed for military instruction, and although it has had great success in the commercial market, it’s nice to see it being recognized as a great training ship as well.  The Royal Thai Army’s visit has given them the confidence to go forward with Enstrom, now and in the future.” 

Along with General Pittaya, 3 other experienced Royal Thai Army pilots flew the Enstrom 480B and piston powered F28F.  “The said it was almost too easy to fly,” commented David Blake of Blake & DeJong Ltd., Enstrom’s Managing Representative in Asia.  “None of them have ever flown the 480B before, but they were able to take the controls and immediately felt comfortable enough to fly a number of maneuvers.   This will be a great training helicopter for the Royal Thai Army.”

Beyond just training, the Royal Thai Army intends to use their new 480B’s for a number of missions.  “Avionics-wise, these new 480B’s are going to be some of more advanced aircraft in the Royal Thai Army’s inventory,” said Enstrom’s Director of Sales & Marketing, Tracy Biegler.  “When we explained to the Royal Thai Army firsthand some of the features and capabilities of the EFIS system and the tactical radios, it really opened their eyes.  These aircraft will have the ability to do a lot more than just training, such as search and rescue, surveillance, and disaster relief.  The Royal Thai Army is definitely going to utilize the flexibility built into the 480B design.”

 
Enstrom is represented in Asia by Blake & DeJong Ltd., and in Thailand by M-Landarch Inc.  For more information on Blake & DeJong Ltd., please contact dblake@attglobal.net.  For more information on M-Landarch Inc, please visit www.m-landarch.com.

Founded in 1959, Enstrom Helicopter Corporation manufactures a complete line of helicopters. The three-seat, piston-powered F28F and 280FX are popular training, sport, and light commercial aircraft. The larger turbine-powered 480B is available as a three-place advanced trainer and patrol aircraft, or as a three to five place executive transport. For law enforcement applications Enstrom produces a specialized variant of the 480B, known as the Guardian, and the F28F, called the Sentinel. Enstrom can be found on the Internet at www.enstromhelicopter.com.
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Looking For An Outstanding Patrol Aircraft Without The Operating Cost of A Helicopter? Look No Further Than The Pima Co. Sheriff's Helio Courier

Pima Sheriff's second Helio Turboprop Conversion, Tricycle Gear was added later.While fixed wing aircraft are undeniably the first police aircraft to take to the air, the helicopter has long since taken over as the preferred law enforcement aircraft of choice, for obvious reasons.  But is it smart to ignore the capabilities of some fixed wing aircraft as a primary patrol platform?  You might be surprised at what one Arizona Sheriff’s Department has been able to accomplish.   

In 1999 Sgt. Rick Pearson of the Pima County (AZ) Sheriff’s Department was tasked by his command to come up with a patrol support aircraft.  The only caveat was that it had to be cheaper to procure and operate than a traditional helicopter. 

Pearson almost immediately had an answer,  a fixed wing Helio Courier STOL aircraft.  Pearson had prior experience flying Helio airplanes and new that they had a stall speed in the high 20’s and could take off in 300’ with no head wind and at max gross weight.  Sgt. Pearson also knew that the Helio Courier had been used as a forward observation aircraft during the Vietnam era, and that hard points could be installed under the wings to mount a FLIR camera.  It was the perfect aircraft as far as he was concerned.

In 1999 the Pima County Sheriff’s Dept. purchased a 1974 model Helio Courier HT-295, and set about making the necessary upgrades to put it into service as a patrol support aircraft.  By early 2000 “Survey One” took to the air with a fresh coat of paint and a fresh engine overhaul.  It didn’t take long for the Pima County Sheriff’s Dept. to know that they had made the right decision going with the Helio Courier.  The aircraft flew an average of 5.5 hours a night, required little maintenance and had an operational cost of approximately $100 per hour. 

As great as this patrol aircraft was, the members of the Air Support Unit recognized that it could be better.  Over the next several years the Pima Sheriff’s Air Support Unit would convert this aircraft to a turboprop, then acquire a second Helio Courier and convert it as well.  This makes the Pima County Sheriff’s Department the owners of the only two Helio HT-420 aircraft in the entire country!

The turbine engine used for the conversion was the Rolls Royce C-20 with the B-17c turboprop conversion.  Now this was not the first time a Helio Courier had been converted to a turboprop.  A 1967 conversion “B-15” version of the engine resulted in 320 shaft horse power, but it actually underperformed the piston engine at higher altitudes.  The B-17c conversion results in 420 shaft horse power.

R.R. C-20 Turboprop engine being installed.So what kind of performance do they get with their turboprop Helio Courier?  How about a take off roll of 100’ at 87% torque, a landing roll of 50’,  a minimum forward air speed of about 30 knots IAS, 20 gallons per hour at loiter speed, and the ability to loiter for several hours longer than any LE pilot wants to stay in the air.  But there is more, at loiter speed (which is 70-80 kts) the prop only turns at about 1700 rpm resulting in little tip noise, and a very quiet aircraft above the city.  No who could use less noise complaints right?  Top speed for the aircraft is about 140-150 kias at 8500’ msl.

One of the first flights after the Turboprop Conversion.Both Helio Courier turboprops are outfitted with a FLIR Star Saffire III camera making them a true stand off “eye in the sky.”  Deputies in the cockpit of one of these aircraft are capable of monitoring a police call from several miles away, often without the bad guy or even the general public even knowing they are there. 

So what is the cost of such an aircraft?  Here are some numbers provided by Sgt. Pearson for their second aircraft.

Airframe:  $150,000
R.R. C-20 Turbine Engine:  $250,000
Total Conversion:  $450,000
FLIR Star Saffire Camera:  $450,000
Aero Computers Moving Map:  $100,000
Direct Operating Cost:  About $170 an hour. (about 1/3 of a Bell 206B3)

Sgt. Pearson notes that their program has been so successful, the budget for the Pima County Sheriff’s Air Support Unit was actually increased this year.  This is noteworthy in a time when many police air units are facing budget cuts.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Helio HT-420 aircraft are operated under “Public Use” aircraft rules.
While the aircraft may not be FAA certified, only factory parts were used in the conversion and FAA standards were followed as closely as possible. 

Any department or agency interested in acquiring and converting their own Helio aircraft for patrol can contact Sgt. Pearson if they have further questions.

rick.pearson@sheriff.pima.gov 

Police Helicopter Pilot.com would like to thank Sgt. Pearson for his cooperation, information and photos that made this article possible. 

All Pima Sheriff pilots are IFR Certified, and benefit from this all glass panel.

So What's The Real Story Behind All Those Wacky Mesa Police Helicopter Videos On Youtube?

One of the main purpose of this site has always been to promote police aviation to the general public in a positive way.  In so doing I normally tend to avoid controversial subjects to the extent possible.  Not because I don’t want to take on a cause, but it just doesn’t play into the overall theme of the site. 

But every now and then something comes along that I just can’t turn a blind eye to.  Such is the case with a series of  rather silly, if not outright wacky videos on Youtube all about the Mesa Arizona Police Helicopter, Mesa Police Pilots, or the Mesa Police Air Support Unit.

In many ways this is an old story……as I will outline for you.  Why drag up old news right?  The problem is that while the story itself is somewhat stale, the videos live on in cyberspace ready to spring to life the moment someone does an internet search related to the Mesa Police Helicopter, or the Mesa Police Department’s Air Support Unit.  And since January of 2008, this often redundant series of videos has been viewed over 63,000 times, according to data from Youtube.   Some of the videos have since been reposted to other video sharing sites such as AOL video. 

And come to life they do with inflammatory titles such as;

“Mesa Police Helicopter Pilot Caught With Pants Down!”

“Mesa Police Helicopter Pilot Busted!!”

“Mesa Police Helicopter Pilot Caught Giving It Hard All on Tape!!”

“Mesa Helicopter Pilots Terrorize A Innocent Woman!”

And the list of titles goes on and on until it reaches  25. 

The purpose of this article is not to attack the author of these videos.  Rather it is to provide balance for anyone who is seeking legitimate information online about the Mesa Police Air Support Unit. 

Take for example the one title “Mesa Police Helicopter Pilot Caught With Pants Down!”  While used in a euphemistic fashion, it’s real purpose is to accuse and inflame.  When one clicks on the video however you get nothing more than 9 plus minutes of MD Helicopter rotor noise on four fixed cameras, and an occasional distant light from the helicopter.   It should be apparent to any observer (or listener) of the video that the helicopter is in a fairly wide orbit, as the rotor noise becomes louder and quieter depending on where the helicopter is at in the orbit.  No notable evidence of any wrongdoing and certainly nothing that rises to the euphemistic level of “getting caught with your pants down.”

The title “Mesa Police Helicopter Pilot Caught Giving It Hard.  All On Tape!”  makes one really begin to wonder about the author’s state of mind.  In this 4:56 second video you are treated to about 2 minutes of silence, 30 seconds of fairly close MD Helicopter rotor noise, and about 2 minutes of barely audible rotor noise, again on a split screen of 4 fixed cameras.  Not quite sure what the pilot was supposed to be “giving it hard” to. 

In at least one of the videos it appears the author is in his vehicle chasing the Mesa Police Helicopter through the city streets, while instructing and encouraging a child in the vehicle to get the helicopter on video. 

In order to have a better understanding of what is really going on here, we need to go back  to November of 2006.  A Mesa Police Helicopter and crew is working a police call which happens to put the helicopter in the same neighborhood as one David Degroote (about 37 at the time).  The police helicopter wasn’t on some run of the mill misdemeanor, but was actively involved in a search for suspects in the theft of a bank automated teller machine.  At least one of the crew members were wearing NVG goggles to aid in both the search and flight safety.  While in the area of the Degroote residence the helicopter and crew were hit with a high powered spot light, for approximately 30 seconds, (remember that NVGs amplify ambient light at anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000 times.)  A bright spotlight shining on the police helicopter at night time is absolutely disruptive, dangerous and without question rises to the level of interfering with a law enforcement officer in the performance of his duties. 

In the coming weeks David Degroote would be arrested by the Mesa Police Department for shining the light at their Helicopter.  On 1-16-07 a criminal complaint was issued against Degroote for the misdemeanor charges of Endangerment, Disorderly Conduct and being a Criminal Nuisance.  At the time of his arrest and at the time the complaint was issued not one of  the 25 videos about the Mesa Police Helicopter or pilots had been uploaded to Youtube.  The 25 videos in question have all been posted under the Youtube user name of “justjumpnow.”

Let me pause here and say that Mr. Degroote could very well have had a legitimate noise complaint against the Mesa Police Helicopter.  Helicopters are admittedly noisy, and tend to annoy some people more than others.  Most law enforcement aviation units are well aware of the noise emitted by their helicopters and most take noise complaints from the public seriously.  Many law enforcement air support units go so far as to avoid noise sensitive areas all together when possible.  If Mr. Degroote did have a legitimate noise complaint in this case, it appears that he chose not to follow up on it in a professional and courteous manner and instead placed himself in a position of committing a criminal act. 

According to Degroote himself, on 12-6-06 (between the date of the alleged incident and the date the criminal complaint was issued) he filed an injunction [against harassment] against Officer David Dolenar Jr and the Mesa Police Department.  The injunction was never granted by the court.  However, on 2-1-07 Officer Dolenar filed an injunction to stop harassment, against David Degroote.  On 3-21-07 the injunction was issued by the court.  The court essentially agreed that Mr. Degroote was harassing Officer Dolenar.  (Source-  Letter published by the Degroote’s on the website Freedomsphoenix.com.)  I am intentionally not linking to the site, but it is there if you want to go searching for it.

One year later, in November of 2007 David Degroote was convicted of the misdemeanor charges of  Endangerment, Disorderly Conduct, and Criminal Nuisance, according to a story in the East Valley Tribune dated Nov 9 2007.  Degroote was ordered to serve 5 days in jail, with another 25 days suspended on the condition that he completes 3 years of probation and that he completes mandatory counseling. 

One of the videos posted by “justjumpnow” is of the local News 5 TV station doing a story about Degroote’s conviction and his ongoing feud with the Mesa Police Department.  Even while the story equally covers his conviction and his complaints, the video was titled “Mesa Police Illegal Helicopter Activity Revealed on News 5.”  Huh?

The first video about the Mesa Police Helicopter was not uploaded to Youtube until 1-14-08, after Degroote’s conviction and after he was ordered by the court to stop harassing Officer Dolenar.  The last video was uploaded on 9-1-08.  The on screen dates on the videos indicate that all but one of them was filmed in 2006 or 2007 with the vast majority being filmed in 2007.

Interestingly, there has been no activity and no logins by “justjumpnow” for over a year on his Youtube channel.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that Mr. Degroote remains on probation until around November of 2010.  If I had to guess I would guess that his Youtube activities were brought to the attention of his probation officer and or the judge, and he risked going back to jail if he continued, (pure speculation on my part.) 

Can a judge curtail someone’s freedom of speech in this manner while on probation.  Absolutely, by accepting probation in lieu of more jail time the defendant agrees to give up certain liberties, which can vary from case to case.  People routinely give up their 4th amendment rights to unreasonable search and seizure, (generally when on felony probation or when the crime involved a theft.)  It would be completely reasonable for the judge to prohibit Degroote from uploading inflammatory videos on Youtube, about the Mesa Police Helicopter, while he is on probation. 

I also noted that 9 of the videos were filmed on either 2-21-07 or 2-22-07 and some of them just before and just after midnight.  This would lead a normal person to believe that at least some of these 9 videos stem from one incident, or one radio call the Mesa Police Helicopter was involved in. 

So there you have it.  I will let you decide if Mr. Degroote and his family were targeted for harassment by the members of the Mesa Police Air Support Unit, or if Degroote embarked on a misguided campaign of filming and posting videos to Youtube as a way to get back at the police for his arrest and conviction. 

It seems to this writer that Mr. Degroote could have avoided a lot of heartache by going into the police station and having a friendly chat with the person in charge of the air unit, instead of picking up a spotlight.  

"Got the wires?" "Got em" High Tension Wires Continue To Be Helicopter Killers!

As a young deputy I was getting my first opportunity to go for a flight in one of our ASTREA patrol helicopters.  The purpose of the flight was to get some aerial photos of a crime scene.  The pilot had landed in an open field near our semi-rural patrol station.  As the helicopter skids left the ground, the pilot started talking to me in a way that I thought was kind of strange.  It went something like "Ok a little left pedal, a little left cyclic, and we're going to go up and over those wires right there."  At the time I wasn't quite sure why he was telling me this, but I thought "OK".

If you were to climb in the back seat of one of our patrol helicopters today, and go on a patrol flight with us, you would here similar talk between the two crew members.  While we don't necessarily verbalize every control input, there are certain things that we do verbalize every time.  Flying over or in the area of high tension wires is one of those times.  When approaching wires, one member of the crew will call them out and the other member will acknowledge them.  It goes something like  this, "coming up on the wires", "got the wires".   You might also here "crossing on the pole", or like one of our pilots likes to say "adding a couple hundred extra feet for the wife & kids." 

What we are practicing here is basic CRM, "Cockpit Resource Management" or "Crew Resource Management" whichever term you prefer.  All pilots are familiar with the concept. 

For us, verbally calling out every set of high tension wires, every time we fly over or near them is part of a disciplined approach to identifying hazards to flight.  In addition it continuously reminds us where every set of high tension wires in the county are located, particularly along some of our standard flight paths.   

No one likes to talk about the mistakes of dead pilots.  But talk about them we must in order to learn and hopefully prevent ourselves from ever making the same fatal mistake(s).  The fiery crash of a Bell 206 helicopter with 4 souls on board, near Auberry Ca. earlier this month is a sad reminder of the dangers of high tension wires.  But there is a little more to this crash than simply flying along and not seeing the wires, or not knowing they were there.  One must read the NTSB preliminary report carefully to see what I am referring to.

wikimedia.org photoIn this case, "crossing on the pole" would almost assuredly have saved the lives of the pilot and the 3 Fish & Game wildlife biologist who were passengers on the helicopter.  If you can envision two towers with a span of high tension wires between them, you would see that the high tension wires have at least some droop to them.  The greater the span, the greater the droop.  But in this case there is a smaller lighter wire running from the top of each tower to the opposite tower.   These wires are often much harder to see, and do not have the same droop as the heavier wires.  In this case the Bell 206 came down a canyon in straight and level flight over the top of the drooped high tension wires, but apparently did not see the smaller ground wire running between the tops of the two towers.  There is little doubt as to what occurred as the crash was witnessed by two USFS law enforcement officers who were in the area. 

Every year in America you can count on one or two low flying helicopters, following freeways during bad weather and often at night, crashing into high tension power lines.  The result is always the same, a fiery crash onto the freeway. 

Whether you are an LE pilot, civilial pilot, future pilot, or even a passenger in a helicopter calling out wires, knowing their locations along your flight path, and even knowing a little bit about them may very well save your life one day. 

Remember, altitude is your friend & "got the wires."

Letter From Frustrated Helicopter Mechanic To Engine Company a Classic!

For years now I have heard stories about one of our retired helicopter mechanics who was quite a unique character.  When he was not coming up with ingenious contraptions or fixes to helicopter mechanical problems, he would occasionally fire off a letter on issues that he believed should be corrected. 

Now anyone who works in or around helicopters knows that they are notorious for oil leaks.  We have all heard terms such as "operational seepage" or funny quips like "a helicopter is nothing more than a thousand spare parts flying in formation around an oil leak."  Well one day Bob finally had enough of the standard helicopter turbine engine oil leak and fired off the following letter, (recently dug out of an old file in the maintenance hangar).

 

XXXXXXXXX RotorCraft, Inc.

El Cajon, Ca. 92020

August 21, 2000


"Dear Folks:

This is in Reference to your expensive 250C20 series engines.  You are probably aware of the tendency of these engines to leak oil.  Much of our maintenance effort is spent on trying to fix these never ending leaks. 

I think I may have come upon a remedy for the above problem.  For about fifty years I have operated lawn mowers.  These mowers have a vertical shaft that drives a blade.  This mechanism is immersed in oil.  In spite of poor maintenance, sudden stoppage, over speeding (one turned so fast that it almost went into a hover), lack of oil, too much oil, and imbalance and out of track blades, etc.  I have yet to see a drop of oil on the surface where the machines were parked.  In light of the above I think you should either merge with Briggs & Stratton or hire one of their engineers. 

Respectfully,

Bob XXXXXXXXXX


P.S.  You might pass this on to MD Helicopters we have the same problem with their gear-boxes.  I'm sure they would be grateful."

 

See a copy of the original here.  I thought this letter was just too good not to share.


Police Helicopter Pilot.com Talks With Utah DPS Pilot Terry Mercer About His Now Famous Pinnacle Landing(s)

Utah Trooper Terry Mercer landed his Eurocopter AS 350 B2 Helicopter on this pinnacle a total of 11 times during the rescue of an injured hiker in Washington County Utah.When Utah State Trooper Terry Mercer landed his helicopter on this pinnacle back in August to rescue an injured hiker, he had no idea that it would turn into the story which it did.  Once the pictures started filtering out, they began to show up on every major news outlet in the country.  But now that things have settled down, I thought it would be a good time to ask Trooper Mercer a few questions of my own about this pretty incredible landing, or make that 11 landings. 

PHP (Police Helicopter Pilot.com): You are a former Navy Pilot right?  How many PIC hours do you have in helicopters?

Trooper Mercer:  Yes, as a former Navy Pilot I retired from the Navy with about 9000 hrs pretty evenly split between helo and fixed.   I was an H-3 pilot by trade and flew two tours off of USS John F Kennedy.  I ended up with just under 4500 hrs helo with about 3000 PIC.  When I went to the training command tour, helo consolidation for all the services up at Ft Rucker was being discussed, so no helo instructors were being sent to Pensacola.  I ended up going as a fixed instructor.  I feel this made me a better aviator, but I did miss out on the TH-57 (jet ranger) time. 

PHP:  How long have you been flying for Utah DPS?  Are you Sworn?  If so, did you work the streets prior to being transferred into the air unit?

Trooper Mercer:    When I retired I couldn't even get an interview with the light helo EMS outfits, so I ended up with the Patrol and drove the Highways of Utah for 8 yrs having a ball.  After 8 years the Aero Bureau finally had an opening.   I began flying an Army surplus Bell 58 in 2000.  Finally in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics we got the two Eurocopter Astar B-2's that we fly now.

PHP:  Had you completed an official Mountain Flying Course prior to this landing?

Trooper Mercer:     I was sent to Canada for Canadian Helo Mt Flying course and then when we obtained the B-2's myself and the other Helo pilot went back up for B-2 initial course.  Since then we go to Dallas for Eurocopter's factory school each year for refresher training.  We train each year in-house for an instrument flight and an altitude/external flight. 

PHP:  Does your unit routinely practice or do these types of pinnacle landings?

Trooper Mercer:  Pinnacles such as this are not specifically practiced, however the events of this morning are not everyday, but not uncommon either. 

PHP:  On your initial recon......did you pick out this LZ or did the ground rescuers pick it out and ask you to attempt a landing there?

Trooper Mercer:  I had looked at the pinnacle when I first got there, but decided the SAR team would be "ledged" out and have no access to the victim.  As I dropped the rope team up high one of the first team members had hiked to the victim and then explored out to the pinnacle and sort of goat-hopped out to it, showing me that they could get on and off of the pinnacle. 

PHP:  When you first looked at this LZ did you think for a minute that you would be able to successfully land there? 

Trooper Mercer:  A quick visual of the pinnacle and I knew that it was safe, doable, and the closest site possible.  It immediately changed the entire operation from a 1-1 1/2 day event to a 2-3 hr operation.     

PHP:  What was the worst part about landing on this particular pinnacle?

Trooper Mercer:  I shut down on the pinnacle on the first landing to evaluate the footprint.  The starts  were the worst as the ac sort of shifted weight as the blades began to swing. 

PHP:  Were all of the landings pretty much the same, or were some more difficult than others?

Trooper Mercer:  It was on that third landing that I got sloppy and landed about 15 inches back and so when Cory got out the aircraft sort of teetered back on the skids.  The U-tube footage is when I started it back up and was positioning it forward again.  That's why I was alone and landed about 4=5 times to sort of feel out the footprint and determine where I'd be the most solid. 

Trooper Mercer's third landing of his Utah DPS helicopter provided a little scare when it rocked back on it's heels after shutdown.

PHP:  It appears there is a sheer rock wall in front of you.  How far away was this wall, and did it actually help your landings as a hover reference?

Trooper Mercer:   Over all, the landings were very safe as I had almost 25-30 ft from the wall, so the  blade clearance was not a factor.  The boulders on the right of the aircraft were 3-4 feet below the blades so all I had to do was sit it down.  I thought I had about 18-24 inches fore and aft, but like I said after it teetered I narrowed it down to 4-6- inches fore/aft, but I had a good rock that I could put about 4 inches to the right and 2 inches forward of the right front skid tube and as long as I put it right there, the rest of the AC would obviously follow along.

PHP:  What was the elevation and were there any winds?

Trooper Mercer:  The altitude down there is about the lowest part of the state  (3600 at the site), so even though it was hot I had plenty of power and the wind was dead calm that morning so I had no excuse not to get it done..

PHP:  Was your TFO assisting with each landing by watching skids and talking you down?  Did you make some of these landings as the only person on board the helicopter?

Trooper Mercer:   On occasion during sling missions of marijuana we will use ground radio assistance to position the sling, but during missions like this we fly solo and we don't land where the pilot doesn't have safe clearance.  Our passengers are good SAR members so they help with clearances but the pilot is the final judge.  With just two full time and one part time AirMed pilot we are able to maintain currency and proficiency to a high degree.

PHP: I understand  you did 11 landings, what time frame was this over?   

Trooper Mercer:  I landed 11 times with the first 7 bringing in members 3 at a time with gear.  After taking the medic and victim to the hospital there was 16 people still up there.  I told them to have 2 people on each side of the landing site and load hot to get them off.  Like the professionals they are they were loaded with gear and buckled in about two min each time, so the last four landings were very quick down, load and go.  Like I indicated earlier without shutting down and starting it was really easy.  We originally spotted Jim (the victim) at 0820 and all persons were off the mountain and back at the Command Post by 1140 hours.

PHP:  Having never flown a Eurocopter, I hear they are kind of "squirrley" in ground effect.....would you agree and did this make these landings more difficult?

Trooper Mercer:  The B-2 is called the Ecureuil which means squirrel  in French.  When you hover at 2-4 ft it is "squirrley" so the common tendency is to high hover at about 7-8 ft which smoothes it out a lot, but is not near as good if you have to do a hovering-auto.  Up there that day, the Pinnacle was so small that it really was pretty smooth all the way to the landing so ground effect was I believe, minimized.

Utah DPS Trooper Terry Mercer sits with his Eurocopter AS 350 B2 while victim is being packaged for transport.

PHP:  Thanks Trooper Mercer for taking the time to share your experiences with the readers of Police Helicopter Pilot.com

One of the freedoms of living in the greatest country on earth is the freedom to get out and enjoy the raw and rugged beauty of this United States of America.  Millions of people each year do exactly that, all across the country.  When things go wrong, and some times they do, it is nice to know there are professionals such as Trooper Mercer and the Washington County (Utah) Sheriff Search and Rescue ready to take the call. 

You can see all of the pictures from this rescue by clicking on the above link to the Washington County SAR site. 

Mountain Top Death Challenges Sheriff's Helicopter Crew

San Diego Sheriff's Bell 407 helicopter. Rocky Laws photo.On a recent November evening the San Diego Sheriff's patrol helicopter and crew were called upon to assist with a possible suicidal subject at the summit of Iron Mountain, near Poway Ca. 

The Iron Mountain Peak is a very popular hike in San Diego County due to it's close proximity to civilization, and the fact that it is a moderate hike that can be accomplished in about 3-4 hours.  From the parking area to the peak is about 5.6 miles round trip, and a 1,000 foot rise in elevation.  The Iron Mountain summit is 2684' msl.  On any given morning one can find 20-30 cars parked at the trail head off of Hwy 67. 

On this particular evening the Sheriff's Communications Center received a call from a subject who advised that there was a body at the summit on Iron Mountain.  There was something about the conversation that lead the dispatcher to suspect that the subject was reporting his own death.  The dispatcher asked the caller if he was the body, and the caller indicated that he was.  At some point the call was lost, and the Sheriff's patrol helicopter was launched. 

A short time later the night crew arrived at the mountain's summit in their Bell 407 helicopter, to discover a single male at the only picnic table on the mountain.  The subject was non responsive to the presence of the helicopter, the spot light, or the PA announcements from the crew.  No weapon could be seen, and there was no way to assess the subject's medical status from the helicopter.  Also, there was no LZ at the summit suitable for landing the larger, 7 passenger, Bell 407. 

In addition to airborne law enforcement, sheriff's helicopter crews often find themsevles at the center of coordinating people and resources in order to accomplish the mission at hand.  This helicopter crew was suddenly faced with the challenge of getting the right people and resources to the top of the mountain, in the darkness, in order to assess the subject's condition and bring the matter to a safe conclusion.  In a typical situation such as this, law enforcement almost always enters the scene first, secures any weapons and makes the scene safe for medical personnel to enter and render aid to the victim. 

In this case the crew set about coordinating with the responding ground units, San Diego Fire Rescue Helicopter (Copter 1) and eventually the Medical Examiner Investigator.  The first responding ground deputy was picked up and flown to a Cal-Fire LZ equipped with a metal landing pad, located about half way between the parking area and the mountain summit.  From here the TFO and the ground deputy began the one hour hike to the summit. 

At the same time the pilot coordinated with San Diego Fire Rescue to conduct a night hoist operation once the scene at the summit was deemed safe.  San Diego Fire Rescue would insert a paramedic to assess the victim and provide medical attention if necessary.

Upon reaching the summit the responding TFO and deputy found that the subject was indeed suffering from an apparent self inflicted gunshot wound, and a weapon was recovered.  The San Diego Fire Rescue Helicopter lowered their paramedic who assessed the victim and found no signs of life.  Now began the wait for the Medical Examiner Investigator to respond. 

Once the M.E. Investigator arrived at the trail head parking area, she too was picked up and flown to the Cal-Fire LZ.  She then began the one hour hike to the summit, accompanied by the pilot.  At the conclusion of her on scene investigation the victim was prepared for transport by helicopter.

The San Diego Fire Rescue Helicopter responded back to the scene and conducted a basket lift of the victim, who was then transferred to M.E. personnel waiting at the trail head.  Finally, the helicopter crew, ground deputy, and M.E. Investigator could begin their hike back to the Cal-Fire LZ and their return flight to the trail head.   

This incident is another excellent example of the vital role helicopters play in modern law enforcement and public safety.  Not only do helicopters save lives, but they solve problems. Even with the assistance of two helicopters, this incident took almost 6 hours to resolve.  Excellent job Deputies Joyce and Kaupe and thanks to San Diego Fire Rescue for their assistance!

Do you know what to do if you suspect someone is suicidal?  Learn more by following this link, suicide prevention.

Tulsa Police Helicopter Pilot Logs Off After Last Patrol Flight

The Tulsa Police Air Support Unit took their final patrol flight on Halloween night, the latest police aviation unit to fall victim to the downturned economy.  The unit was first formed in 1982 and in it's present state consisted of two Bell jet helicopters, and 6 police officer/pilots.  Some of the officer/pilots had been assigned to the unit for over 20 years. 

Grounding of the helicopters will save the city $195,000 this fiscal year according to published reports.  The city has left open the possibility of future patrol flights for now however, by announcing that they will maintain ownership of the idle aircraft.  Tulsa's police helicopters were equipped with the 8500 model FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared Camera) allowing the officers on board to see criminals in the dark.  The 8500 FLIR is essentially the gold standard in todays police helicopters for night time operations. 

In the video below the helicopter crew can be heard logging off for the final time.  The crew member on the radio can be heard saying "Police 1 and Police 2 10-7 grounded."  The code 10-7 generally means "out of service." 

Police aviation is an integral tool of modern day law enforcement.  While the department will survive without an air unit, one can be just as assured that some violent criminals will evade capture due to the lack of air support.  One can only hope that the City of Tulsa will continue to support their police aviation unit when the budget allows. 

Source:  Tulsaworld.com

Info On Current Police Helicopter Activity May Be Coming To Your Computer Soon!

Sacramento P.D. OH-58 Helicopter on patrol.Sir Robert Peel, considered by most to be the founder of the first organized police department was once quoted as saying "The Police are the public and public are the police; The police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of community welfare and existence."

Every law enforcement officer understands that cooperation from the public is vital when it comes to solving crimes, catching the perpetrator, and suppressing crime. 

When it comes to police helicopters one of the most vital pieces of equipment on board is the public address system (P.A.).  Kevin Means of the San Diego Police Air Support Unit, a recognized expert in FLIR operations, goes so far as to call the P.A. the "day time FLIR."  That is how successful the P.A. is in locating wanted suspects, missing kids, and missing elderly subjects. 

It makes sense to go a step further and disseminate current information to the public, when the police helicopter is going to be spending any significant amount of time working a call in your neighborhood.  After all, the police helicopter is already disseminating the information directly to the public in the form of those P.A. announcements. 

The Sacramento Police Department is leading the way (at least in the U.S.) in what is sure to be a new trend in airborne law enforcement.  That is, publishing current information on it's website anytime the Sacramento Police Helicopter is orbiting a call for any significant amount of time.  Citizens can go to the Sacramento Police Department's website and click on the "Helicopter Activity" bar on the left side of the page.  Citizens will generally get the type of call is being worked, along with descriptions of fleeing suspects or missing kids, etc. 

One might wander why this is necessary if the helicopter is already announcing the information over the P.A. system.  Well on many police helicopters the speaker is directed down and out of the co-pilot's or observer's side of the helicopter toward the center of the orbit or search area.  Consequently people on the outside of the orbit often cannot understand what is being broadcast.  The result is calls flooding into the communications center from citizens complaining that they can't understand what is being said, and wanting to know what is going on in their neighborhood. 

Publishing this information online is smart, keeps the public informed, and overall enhances the effectiveness of the police on the ground and in the air. 

I have already heard that our own agency is working on a similar solution, but I do not have the details or a time frame as of yet. 

In the U.K. both the  West Yorkshire Police Dept. and the Northamptonshire Police Department have similar programs.

More and more police agencies today are using Twitter and Facebook to update the public on current police activity to include traffic accidents etc.  I predict it is only a matter of time before the vast majority of police agencies with an air support unit follow suit. 

In addition to keeping the public informed and helping to find fleeing suspects etc., there is one more huge benefit to this.  Though most citizens support their local police aviation unit, there are those who view them as nothing more than noisy and costly good old boy flying clubs.  While we won't convert everyone, letting the public see in real time the types of calls the aviation unit is assisting, will most likely have a net positive result. 

Partial Settlement Reached In Silver State Helicopter Scam

When Silver State Helicopters abruptly declared bankruptcy in February of 2008 it was the final push for me to launch this website and begin blogging about Police Helicopters.  My very first blog entry was published on 2-8-08 and was titled "Silver State Helicopters Dashes Student Pilot's Dreams."

Silver State was loosely tied to law enforcement aviation in a couple of ways.  First the founder, Jerry Airola, was a former Law Enforcement Officer from the State of California and secondly, one of the false promises he used to pull in new students was promises of jobs as police helicopter pilots.  Airola, through his company turned out to be quite the con artist.  I had already reached the conclusion that there was a real lack of information on how one becomes a police helicopter pilot, and Silver State's false promises simply confirmed my belief.

One of Silver State's training locations just happened to be a few buildings away from our base at Gillespie Field in El Cajon Ca.  I can remember driving to work on more than one occasion, and hearing a jazzy radio commercial about the massive shortage of helicopter pilots, and police helicopter pilots.  Most people in the helicopter industry were not surprised at all when Silver State shut their offices without warning, and Jerry Airola slipped out of town. 

In a nutshell their scam was to bring in the new student, help him get a student loan, then get him to turn most or all of the funds over to Silver State very early on.  Silver State would then intentionally make it so difficult for the student to get any actual flight time, that many would throw up their hands and quit.  The student loan money was never refunded. 

A settlement announced this week with Student Loan Express, a member of the New York based CIT Group Inc., will forgive a total of $112.7 million in student loans which were made to student helicopter pilots enrolled in Silver State Helicopters flight schools. 

The settlement involves a total of 12 states which are;  California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. 

This decision will be welcome relief for many former Silver State students many of whom had loans approaching $50,000 dollars, but no pilot certificate to show for it. 

Sources:  Las Vegas Review-Journal, Associated Press, Aero-News.net

Texas DPS Helicopter Responds to Mexican Border During Shootout But Did Not Cross as Reported

texasdpsas350#4.jpg

Texas DPS AS 350B2 on display at the ALEA Conference 2009 in Savana Ga.An hour long shootout Wednesday afternoon between the Mexican Army and narcotic traffickers in Nuevo Laredo prompted the Texas DPS to send state troopers and a police helicopter to the border in case suspects tried to flee back into the U.S.

At least one news source, "My SA News" (San Antonio News)reported that the Texas DPS helicopter in fact responded across the border into Mexico to assist on the call.  This report not only grabbed my attention but also raised many questions, if in fact the report  was accurate.  What frequencies would the Texas DPS helicopter crew use to talk to the Mexican Army or Police?  What if the Tactical Flight Officer on the Texas DPS helicopter wasn't bi-lingual?  Would the Texas Department of Public Safety risk the safety of their crew and helicopter by sending them into the midst of a fire fight between the Mexican Army and Narco Traffickers in Mexico?  As a member of an air unit that also patrols along the U.S./Mexican Border, I could not imagine responding into Mexico for a shootout.   But, maybe they do things differently in Texas.

My inquiries Friday morning to the Captain on duty at the Texas DPS Communications Center evoked a slight chuckle, and an assurance that their helicopter did not respond into Mexico as had been reported.  He confirmed that they did respond to the border in Laredo, in case any suspects attempted to flee into the U.S.

According to authorities, the shootout in front of a day care center in the Nuevo Laredo community of Casa Geo, resulted in the deaths of several narco traffickers.  Two of the vehicles in which the suspects died, a Pontiac Grand Am and another white sedan, both bore Texas license plates. 

In addition to the Helicopter, Texas DPS sent approximately 20 troopers to monitor the border and the two border crossings, International Bridges I & II. 

Texas DPS operates a total of 22 aircraft which includes;  13- American Eurocopter AS 350B2's, 1- twin engine EC-145 helicopter, 7- Cessna fixed wing aircraft, and 1- Twin Engine Turbo Commander fixed wing aircraft.

Texas DPS also lays claim to operating the most technologically advanced single engine law enforcement helicopter in the world, an AS 350B2.