September 1, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
David Hudson has seen it all working the scenes of car wrecks and other emergencies on his job as a medevac helicopter pilot. But a flight that started as a summer joy ride in a borrowed Cessna 172 now rates as “the wildest experience I’ve ever had,” he said.
Local police are calling the flight that began as a pleasure outing on Aug. 23 the “eye in the sky” that helped them apprehend two burglary suspects. And a first-time passenger aboard the Cessna is very glad that he asked Hudson to point out his Craighead County, Ark., home from the air.
Hudson, of Jonesboro, and two buddies had been planning a fishing trip to a favorite spot on the Mississippi River about 60 miles away near Memphis, Tenn. They wondered if the river might be too low to make the trip worthwhile.
Hudson, a 6,000-hour working pilot, suggested that they use a Skyhawk owned by his friend Barry Jackson to fly over and check river conditions. They departed from the Jonesboro Municipal Airport.
Returning from the Mississippi, passenger Steven Lynn made a request familiar to many pilots giving sightseeing flights: Lynn asked if Hudson could fly them over Lynn’s house.
Like many first-time fliers, Lynn had some trouble orienting himself in the air, so he didn’t recognize his property right away, Hudson recalled in an interview.
Hudson showed Lynn where the house was. He also pointed out a white pickup truck parked nearby.
“There are some guys loading up some stuff in a truck right in your driveway,” he said.
Under the circumstances, Hudson considers Lynn’s reaction pretty normal.
“He started freaking out, like anybody would,” the pilot said.
At first Lynn wanted Hudson to land on the road. Hudson rejected that plan. Then Lynn began making calls on his cell phone, to police and to an uncle who lives a short distance away. As the Cessna circled overhead, Lynn’s uncle pulled up in the driveway and confronted the strangers.
The men on the ground tried to talk their way out of the situation until Lynn’s uncle informed them that Lynn was watching the scene unfold from the Skyhawk, which was circling at about 1,800 feet.
That’s when the men started throwing the heavy air conditioning units they had loaded from their vehicle. Then they “went out across the yard, through a ditch onto the gravel road and just took off,” Hudson recalled.
The fishermen gave chase—that is to say, after Hudson overtook the truck, he slowed the airplane down enough so that eventually “we were staying with them really good, running side by side.” (For the detail-oriented reader, that meant adding carb heat, setting power at 2,000 rpm, and selecting 20 degrees of flaps. By now Hudson also had descended to 1,000 feet, an appropriate altitude for ground-reference maneuvers). They were also capturing cell phone video of the chase.
The alleged burglars could run, but they couldn’t hide from the Skyhawk that was flying above the flat farm country. Even when the getaway vehicle passed a rare tree line, the airborne pursuers had no trouble keeping the fleeing pickup in sight.
“The dirt was just going everywhere,” Hudson said.
Lynn relayed the truck’s turns—and a stop-sign violation—to police converging from all directions. Two state troopers and four county police stopped the suspects on Highway 158, about six miles from the airport.
Hudson landed the Cessna in Jonesboro and quickly tied down the aircraft. Lynn’s vehicle was parked at the airport. They jumped in and headed for the spot.
When Hudson and Lynn got there, “They still had them there in the back of the cop car,” he said.
According to news reports, police charged two Jonesboro men with residential burglary and theft of property. Police credited the “eye in the sky” with helping them nab the suspects.
It all happened so fast that the possibility never occurred to Hudson that the men down below might be armed. Missing from Lynn’s home, but not found in the truck by police, was a fully loaded automatic rifle, Hudson said.
Hudson said he has seen a lot in his work—but this was different. When flying an evacuation mission, you experience an initial rush of excitement after which “it all cools down and you’re just doing your job.”
This time, Hudson thinks he was probably influenced by the reactions of his nonpilot passengers, once the three men realized that they had happened over a crime scene.
“The adrenaline got to me too. It really did,” he told AOPA. “Immediately you’re like, ‘Oh man, get those guys.’”
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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