Many years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a police activity that was part of a program called “Night Out Against Crime.” Nationwide, law enforcement along with community groups were holding events to recognize efforts to combat crime. That national campaign started in 1984 and it was exciting to be on the front line.
I had only been working in city government for a few weeks and I was green as Kermit the Frog. I got the assignment to work with the Police Department on coordinating activities in conjunction with the local university and neighborhood groups. This was a big deal. It certainly was for me, one of my first big assignments, directly from the mayor. The local television stations, radio and the newspaper were all onboard, it was a great media event.
More than 35 years later, I look back on this event with a sense of pride because it was well-attended at the university site and in many neighborhoods around the city. I worked with some good people on organizing the main event and getting the news media there. The city had experience neighborhood coordinators who worked with leaders of the different neighborhood groups to get them involved. After getting the event kicked off with the usual dignitaries speaking, entertainment for the kids, McGruff the Crime Dog and refreshments, I had a second assignment.
I raced across town to the smaller of the two airports serving the city. With the permission of the police chief, I was to be the navigator on the evening patrol in the police helicopter. I had never been in a helicopter before, so this was to be quite the experience.
The police helicopter, piloted by a police sergeant, had two seats and was really just a big, clear bubble – and no doors. That last part was a complete surprise to me. During this time of year, they preferred to fly without the doors. For a person with a fear of heights, this was going to be a thrilling ride.
This is about the size of the police helicopter.
Imagine removing the side doors for flight, that was the experience.
I remember this helicopter ride like it happened last week, which is interesting since I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday. Anyway, I listened carefully when the pilot explained the workings of the helicopter, the headphone controls, the search light features, and most importantly, how to make sure the shoulder belt was safely secured. I would be thinking of that safety belt later.
It was windy that night, but not too windy for flight. As the helicopter engine started, I immediately noticed how loud it was. The headphone intercom did not do much to drown out the engine noise, but it made it possible to hear the pilot. The headphone was fit over both ears, uncomfortably, and nothing like your stereo headphones.
As we lifted off the ground, the wind made sure the craft swayed enough that the pilot had to apply a countermeasure to keep it level as we lifted slowly into the air. At a moment like that you are aware that you have absolutely no control over your life.
Let me interject, back in 1984, no waivers or forms had to be signed granting me permission to take this helicopter ride. Today, a non-police employee would not be allowed to ride in that same situation. Did I mention that there had been crashes and even a death? I had life insurance, but not enough to allow my beneficiaries to live in Monte Carlo.
We lifted off in early evening and it was still very light, but the evening would begin to fade. The sensation of climbing into the air as you are watching the ground get smaller and farther way is a very strange one. I guess it might be comparable to an amusement park ride when it begins a climb up the tracks or into the air, except that you keep on going.
Remember, there are no doors on the helicopter and I feel the wind rush up against me. We climbed to a few hundred feet, which does not sound like much, unless you are a bug in the sky. The pilot was very good about telling me what we were about to do, and reminding me more than once about operating the intercom so he could actually hear me. I am sure the higher we rose, my voice did as well.
Seeing the city from that vantage point was indescribable. We were higher than any object like trees or buildings, but not so high that we lost the sensation of speed. In a small helicopter you feel every jab of wind or pull of the engine, and there is a lot of vibration and sudden movement. As I describe it, this motion did feel like an amusement park ride; I might even have been screaming.
The part that was the most frightening is when the helicopter turns, the craft goes from a level horizon to an angle, like the Earth tilting on its axis. When we made a steep right turn, the helicopter tilted my direction and suddenly I was nearly hanging out over empty space. That’s when I felt the presence of the shoulder belt, my new best friend. If you have a fear of heights or vertigo, you are in trouble. I tried leaning the other direction, to my left as if that would equalize the twenty degrees or so tilt. Good times.
We traveled over to the university where the event was still going on as we made our official visit, flying the colors so to speak. A short time earlier, I had been on the ground there, now I was waving to all the small people. The further out I moved my hand the more resistance I felt from the wind, even though we were traveling very slow around the event. We also cruised to some of the neighborhoods so we could observe their outdoor activities, like cookouts and visits from area police units.
Traveling by air you can get across a big city in a relative short amount of time, considering this craft was not built for speed. We spent the next hour or so doing promotional work, mainly being visible, until the evening light started to disappear. It is an indescribable feeling to witness a sunset from the air, as the light slips away, and a surreal sensation as darkness envelops you. In light, you have the ground as a reference point, at night, that reference points skews as you can see pinpoints of light but not clear objects. All around you is black.
Imagine you are riding in the back of a pickup truck at night, except the truck suddenly is a few hundred feet off the ground. The sound of the engine always reminds you that you are in a machine, but looking out through the windshield or the side into the blackness with dots of light you feel in strange territory. As we flew over the city it was challenging to recognize exactly where we were, but streets were illuminated and large shopping areas were lit up as reference points.
Our job was to monitor the radio and provide backup to patrol calls and traffic stops, in addition to flying over highly trafficked areas, and then places known for break-ins. On National Night Out, residents were encouraged to have their porch lights on, but at that altitude it was difficult to be aware of it.
One thing I should have noticed was quickly the evening shift passed. I was too busy looking around and trying to follow the police calls to be aware of time. As it got later, the calls for service picked up. Sooner or later, I was going to have to work the search light, that’s one of the resources a police helicopter provides. During daylight, you are the eyes in the sky and easily follow flying suspects and give instructions to officers on the ground.
At night, ground visibility is naturally limited, so the search light is essential. The first call we got to help search, operating the handle on the light took me a while to get the knack, but I did. Me, a pencil pushing kid, directing a search light to track a burglary suspect. After the first one, I did get better at keeping the light on the suspect and even anticipating where he was going. Maybe I was not very good at it, but I followed directions and tried to keep the suspect in sight.
Spotting suspicious activity from the air is a rush. You just hope you do your job and don’t let down the officers on the ground, whose lives might depend on your actions.
Before I knew it, my part of the shift was over. We headed back to the airport. Landing in even a light wind is challenging, and we were landing on a flat trailer, so the landing had to be precise. As I unbuckled the shoulder belt and took off the headphones, I felt pretty spent. Such a new experience and the focus of working the search light really revved my engine. As I climbed out of the helicopter, I still felt like I was a few feet off the ground. I have a great deal of respect for the men and women who do that daily.
Looking back, I cannot believe I went up in a small helicopter. If offered it again, I would decline, that’s a firm decision. Never would I feel comfortable doing that, my own internal gyroscope would not tolerate the experience. It was an experience I am glad to have leapt at, as I did when offered similar opportunities in that job.