GA Serves America: Eyes in the sky

Rotor power serves citizens

March 1, 2010

Bank robbery at the BB&T on Princess Anne. Suspect on foot. Last seen going between buildings at the rear of the shopping center. Heading toward Challedon. White male, 20 to 25 years old. Black top, camo pants.” With those words, Virginia Beach, Virginia, police helicopter pilot David J. Cook abruptly took up a heading for the bank, dialed in max power on his Bell 407, and answered, “Air One on the way.” What had started as a familiarization flight for AOPA Pilot had suddenly become a real-world introduction into the business of airborne law enforcement. And just as suddenly, photographer Chris Rose and I turned into additional sets of eyes searching for the suspect.

During a 45-minute search, K-9 units on the ground had sniffed out the robber’s general track, which ran between houses in a subdivision and then ended in a marsh that adjoined a creek. Cook circled overhead, gradually descending into a hover at treetop level so we could scrutinize the marsh and creek for signs of movement. We followed the K-9 teams as they progressed and Cook, projecting the direction of movement, flew the 407 along what we hoped was a heading that would guide the K-9s to the criminal. Our advantage was that we could see farther than the police on the ground, who were running in tall marsh grass.

“He’s hiding now,” Cook says. “When they hear the helicopter they know they can’t run anymore, not without us seeing them. Look for hiding places,” he tells us. “Like those overturned boats, or those sheds, or look for signs of disturbed water. That’ll tell us if he’s crossed the creek.” Sure enough, the suspect was hiding under a tarp that covered a pile of firewood. Before long, he was in handcuffs and on his way to jail, where he’d be held without bond.

Lighting the fire

Cook’s motivation to catch criminals and serve his community is matched only by his love of flying. Policing may be his profession—he spent 16 years working out of a squad car in Virginia Beach—but it’s flying in a helicopter unit that really pumps him up. “I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and used to go by Standiford Field as a kid. When I saw those airliners land I knew right then that I had to fly,” he said. But that would have to wait. First, Cook served in the U.S. Navy as an aviation mechanic. Then he signed on with the Virginia Beach Police Department in 1989.

He acted on the flying bug in August 2003, when he began independently working on his private pilot certificate. By January 2004 he was a private pilot; by August he had his instrument rating; and shortly after that, he bought a 1975 Piper Cherokee 140. As if police work wasn’t enough public service, Cook started using his Cherokee to fly missions for Angel Flight—a charitable organization of volunteer pilots who transport, free of charge, those needing to be flown to hospitals.

His background as a Cherokee pilot worked in his favor when it came time to apply for the helicopter unit. The Virginia Beach police department takes applications from the entire force, but with only two slots open and 26 applicants at the time, competition was tough. An all-important interview counts heavily in the selection process. “I prepared six months for that interview,” Cook recalled. “And when my turn came I basically said, ‘First and foremost, I like to fly. I want to be on patrol in the air. This is something I’ve wanted for a long, long time.’”

Cook was the department’s first choice for helicopter duty. Training began under police auspices in nearby Norfolk, then ended with sessions at the Bell Helicopter training facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Cook began flying patrols in June 2005. To this day he believes that his private pilot training and his Cherokee flying demonstrated the motivation necessary to secure the helicopter job.

The workhorse

The Virginia Beach Police Department operates two turbine-powered helicopters: a 1989 Bell 206, and a recently purchased 2007 Bell 407. The 407 is powered by a single Rolls-Royce/Allison 250C417 turboshaft engine capable of 813 shaft horsepower but derated to 674 shp for better performance at high density altitudes. It has a maximum cruise speed of 133 knots, four composite-construction rotor blades, and—like most law-enforcement helicopters—a long list of options.

For medevac use, there’s a litter, oxygen, a defibrillator, suction equipment for aspirating fluids, various intravenous drip bags, an impressive first aid kit, and a dedicated radio for communicating with medical staff at hospitals. When dispatched for medevac missions, two emergency medical technicians fly with a single pilot; the space used for the co-pilot’s seat is taken up by a portion of the litter.

There’s also an electrically powered hoist mounted just above the left door. It’s used to reel in victims wearing a “horse collar” harness, and for lowering a “Bambi bucket” filled with water—for putting out brush fires. Also installed is a wire-strike kit for severing any wires encountered in low flying; a combination forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and video viewing system; a steerable Night Sun high-intensity searchlight; a Lojack receiver for finding stolen cars; an inflatable float system in case of a ditching; and radios for communicating with police headquarters and officers on the ground. With all this additional gear, the total price of the 407 came in at approximately $3.5 million. But it’s a taxpayer investment that has paid off many times over.

When duty calls

Cook is one of six police officers who fly for the helicopter unit. Typically, they serve 10 hours a day, four days a week, and are on call for medevac duty between 3 and 7 a.m. Like the officers who cruise the streets, the helicopter unit routinely flies on patrol every day, waiting for the call to action. On police patrol, the helicopter is run as a two-pilot operation. One pilot flies, while the other serves as a spotter, FLIR operator, and radioman.

It takes 25 hours to become proficient in working the FLIR, which comes in handy locating suspects on foot at night, seeing fires, and identifying vehicles fleeing a crime scene. The viewing system’s video imagery can be recorded or datalinked to ground monitors for documenting crime scene views from above. Other duties in support of police ground units include crowd surveillance, damage assessments, and hunting down criminals such as the bank robber mentioned earlier. “And the beach area gets especially crazy during the vacation months, mostly because of alcohol-related fights, thefts, and domestic disturbances,” Cook adds.

Medevac calls also run the gamut. Cook told of a 4 a.m. call to a remote fire station. A woman complaining of chest pains showed up, but the fire station’s ambulance wouldn’t start. Cook scrambled the 407, landed at the fire station, and delivered the patient to a nearby hospital. Other calls included one for an ill fisherman stranded deep in the marshes; he was rescued with the horse collar. “He was so far out in the middle of nowhere that there was no way anybody on the ground could have reached him,” Cook said. Ditto an individual who fell through an iced-over pond.

Virginia Beach is fortunate to have its helicopter unit. Many communities can’t afford helicopters, and so are deprived of the quick response and special-mission capabilities they provide. These assets reaffirm one more of the many ways that general aviation serves Virginia Beach, other municipalities served by airborne law enforcement and medevac units—and America. And it certainly helps that pilots such as Cook come so driven to serve.

“I’ve got the best job in the world,” he said. “This is the culmination of my career in law enforcement. This is everything I’ve ever wanted. Being a police officer has meaning. I’m a real service to my community, and I’m an advocate for the citizens. That I can fly while doing all that is just icing on the cake.”

E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.