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.