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Helicopter Ride Along

Our president, Nicole Banks, was recently permitted to ride along with the Columbus Division of Police​ Helicopter Unit. Here is her first-person account of her time with them:

A typical CPD ride along with a patrol officer is an eight-hour shift, but a helicopter ride along is two hours. The pilots themselves work a full shift, of course, and if you’d like to know what a typical day for a pilot is like, CPD put out this informative video.

I arrived an hour beforehand for my safety briefing, which is when I met my pilots, Roger Howard and Roger Keeton. They were both incredibly nice, and very interested in hearing about Starfish. They were also very kind when I shared with them my fears about getting motion sick. They basically told me not to worry about it and said if I did get sick, they’d take me back to the hangar and if I wanted to go up in the air again, they’d take me back up.

Roger Keeton took me on a tour of the aviation facilities, then showed me the helicopter. As you can see from the photo, it’s beautiful, and I commented on that, asking if they wash the choppers themselves. They do. At the end of every shift they wash them, cleaning off all the dirt and bugs.

Roger K. gave me instructions on what to do if I needed to evacuate the aircraft and they were unable to help me—make sure to duck my head down if the rotors were still moving, move to the front of the helicopter instead of the back if at all possible because there’s another rotor in the back and I might not be able to see it if it was moving. I was also given a primer on how to use the headset in order to communicate, and Roger K. urged me, “Please talk to us. We want you to talk to us constantly. That way we know you’re OK. If you’re not talking to us, we’ll think something’s wrong.”

“That sounds horrible. How about I absolutely promise to tell you if I feel sick? Promise.”

Weather permitting, CPD has a helicopter in the air at all times, 16 hours a day. Their response times are so mind boggling that when I first heard them, I didn’t believe them: the 2017 Columbus Division of Police Annual Report lists the average response time for the year as 1.16 minutes. The same report states they responded to 11,060 calls for service and logged 5,250 flight hours. They also assisted other agencies 160 times. In fact, I learned on my ride along that CPD assists every law enforcement agency in Franklin County and every county that touches Franklin. They’ll also help counties up to two away, but they need to obtain permission for that because it will typically require refueling. Periodically, Roger K. would update me on how high or fast we were flying. Generally, it was at about 600 feet and 130 mph.

Once we took off, I didn’t actually speak constantly. Or hardly at all. I couldn’t. I was so enthralled by looking out the window and listening to the police radio and watching the helicopter circle over sites that it never occurred to me to talk unless one of the pilots asked me a question. It genuinely was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. From the air, the entire city is enchanting. We were able to fly over the OSU Marching Band as it was practicing. You can see we were able to witness a gorgeous sunset.

Some of the calls for service the pilots were asked to help with that night were searches for a missing person, a rapist, and a car that had brandished a weapon. If you’d like to get an idea of what it looks like to search for a person, check out this video.

We also got to fly over a house that In/Tac had just served a no-knock search warrant on. In/Tac is the narcotics team that, among other things, busts down the doors of Columbus’s drug houses. They have maintained a special place in my heart since I did a ride along with them last year, so I was thrilled to be able to see them from the air. As we came upon them, one of the pilots said, “There’s the house…is it decorated for Halloween? What is that long line of black and orange out there along the side?”

There was a pause as we all tried to figure out what it was, then Roger K., who was able to see the monitor clearly said, “No, those are prisoners with tags on them.” In/Tac had so many people from the drug house lined up outside with orange stickers on them to try to organize things that it looked like a Halloween decoration.

“Look at that,” one of the pilots remarked, chuckling, “tore the door right off the hinges.” I grinned to myself, remembering when In/Tac did that exact thing when I was with them. If you’d like to see pictures of a raid from the ground and read about my In/Tac ride along, here’s the link.

I asked the Rogers how they got their positions at the Aviation Unit. All CPD jobs are based on seniority unless there’s an exceptional qualification component, and the helicopter unit has such a qualification. That means that if someone has a helicopter pilot’s license, they would be hired above someone who does not have a license even if the person without the license has more seniority.

I asked my Pilot Rogers how they obtained their licenses, expecting them to tell me they had obtained them in the military, but they both charged the lessons on their credit cards. Keep in mind that CPD pilots are paid the same as CPD patrol officers, so they did this for the love of flying. Pretty neat, I thought.

At the end of the evening, when we flew back in, Roger Howard took the chopper close to the hangar so they could wash it. There were lines painted on the ground, just like we have in a parking lot at a grocery store. He turned to Roger Keeton. “Am I good over there?”

Roger K. leaned over, “Yep. Good here.”

I giggled. Pilots. They’re just like us.

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