When police officers from 10 law enforcement agencies converged by air and land on a target in Loma Linda, Calif., on Oct. 22, the mission was clear: bring hope and happiness—and an inexhaustible supply of new toys—to young patients at the Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital.
The happy raid played out in dramatic fashion, captured by TV crews that had been tipped off that something big was about to go down.
That lead checked out when police helicopters that had assembled at San Bernardino International Airport moved in on the subject, landing on the hospital’s north lawn in a coordinated maneuver just as armored ground vehicles and other police cars were pulling up in front. Then some 100 officers from 10 area police agencies presented each of more than 250 kids, many assembled on the north lawn, with a new toy, and some tours of the police vehicles. And there were many more toys left for stocking playrooms and closets, said Donald Miskulin, a helicopter pilot for the Riverside, Calif., police department, and the event’s founder.
In its 15 years, the annual Cops for Kids fly-in has grown to become a registered nonprofit organization that Miskulin estimates has provided 12,000 toys to 4,000 kids, with fly-ins also held for the University of California-Davis Children’s Hospital and the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital of Sacramento. About 30 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have participated through the years, he said.
Miskulin, who has participated in the fly-in every year since its inception, will continue to do so despite his imminent retirement from his job flying the light utility MD500 helicopter on aerial patrol for Riverside PD.
It all started with a simple request for some baseball caps.
The young daughter of a sergeant from the Huntington Park department was being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and she had taken to wearing her dad’s departmental ball cap, Miskulin recalled in a phone interview. The cap had become the envy of fellow patients, so the word went out to police officers planning to attend a barbecue: bring some of your departmental ball caps along. The cops did more than that, putting the word among their peers and showing up "with truckloads of toys" in an overwhelming response to the request.
"It was pretty amazing," Miskulin said, recalling that they "ended up visiting the whole hospital."
The hospital administrator asked: "When are you coming back next year?"
Miskulin coordinates event arrangements but demurs on taking credit for its growth, taking pains to "point any accolades back to the officers and deputies who return year after year."
He also considers himself fortunate that his law enforcement career provided the opportunity to incorporate his long-held interest in aviation into his work; like many pilots, he sometimes finds it hard to believe that he can get so much satisfaction from something that he also gets paid to do.
The transition from policeman to police pilot happened in stages. Miskulin had been on the force for several years, and previously had been a criminal investigator in the Air Force, when he got the chance to ride as an occasional relief observer for the Riverside Police Department’s air support unit. That meant that he got to ride if a regularly scheduled crewmember was unavailable.
Eventually, he said, openings in the unit came along as Vietnam-era helicopter pilots retired.
"I got selected, and I got really lucky," he said, noting that "they trained me from scratch" to fly police helicopters.
Now a 4,000-hour pilot with 16 years in the unit, Miskulin and another pilot fly patrols, taking turns as pilot and observer. The aircraft lets them reach any location in the city within two minutes. Missions can mean landing in a tight spot for a rescue, or in the middle of a street, or staying up high, monitoring known crime hotspots with gyro-stabilized binoculars.
Once he was faced with landing in a back yard to assist an officer reported to be in trouble who was not in radio contact. As the helicopter was descending, the officer emerged from a garage, and waved him off. (The cop was okay, but his radio had failed.)
People who have seen dramatic TV news footage often ask him, "Are you the guys on the pursuits?"
"Yeah, that’s us," Miskulin said.
After retirement Miskulin hopes to get a back-seat ride in police aircraft now and then—and he will continue to fly. He is also an instrument-rated airplane pilot, and has plans to buy a Piper PA-28-181 Archer and fly it with his brother, who was working on his private pilot certificate.
In a press release prior to the 2013 fly-in, his department recognized Miskulin’s retirement as “the end of an era.”
"The Riverside Police Department is proud of Don’s vision and his ability to bring this event to life. It will remain as part of Don’s legacy long after he leaves the Air Support Unit," it said.