By Ron Corbin
Flying for Air Support Division (ASD) is probably one of the premier job assignments for LAPD… other than for obvious reasons working “beach patrol” in Venice Division. It’s one of those cases where for a position to become available someone either has to die or retire. There could be a lot of reasons for this choice assignment, including good pay (Beach Patrol officers would probably work for free or even pay the Department for their assignment.). But most officers seeking to be a pilot or observer did it for the thrill and desire to fly. In any case, I’ll mention a few perks of the job.
If we had the time, slowly orbiting the perimeter of Dodger Stadium or the LA Coliseum on game nights was a frequent activity to check the score, and see if the “Boys in Blue” or Trojans of USC were winning. After a couple of orbits, we would have to depart the area to avoid a disgruntled fan’s complaint who thought we shouldn’t get to watch the game for free.
One of my favorite times to fly each year was PM Watch (swing shift) on the 4th of July. About a half-hour after the sun dipped below the Pacific’s horizon, I would climb up to about 1,000 feet above the ground, and slowly cruise over the LA Basin where I could also view the San Fernando Valley. As darkness appeared, a magnificent aerial display of fireworks began popping-up everywhere; at city and county parks, from hundreds of family backyards, Marina del Rey, the Rose Bowl, LA Coliseum, Dodger and Anaheim Stadiums. It was a memorable sight.
Naturally, it never seemed to fail that before the patriotic display ended, my observer and I would get a call of a palm tree fire. The typical cause was that juveniles had shot a bottle rocket into the dry fronds (usually on purpose), just to see how big a “torch” they could create. Their mischief’s glee was not only dangerous from embers landing on house roofs, but it also sent hundreds of rats scurrying down the palm tree from nests that were formed in the upper branches. People would scream and run as these rodents scampered into surrounding gutter drains and across neighborhood lawns.
Responding at 500 feet above the ground, which was the normal patrol orbit, someone would often shoot a bottle rocket at our helicopter. Being a federal crime (shooting at aircraft), this gave us probable cause to call for ground units to assist and arrest the “idiot” … er, I mean … suspect. All the arrestee’s fireworks were taken as evidence. Of course, the patrol officers were glad to respond, as many of the confiscated fireworks went home with them after end of watch for their own enjoyment.
In the movie “Blue Thunder,” starring Roy Scheider, it begins with him and his observer hovering outside a high-rise window … “observing”. Okay, okay…if you want to nitpick, they were peeping. I don’t know of any ASD crews who actually did this, but being the friendly “Mr. Policeman,” we would occasionally fly or hover beside a downtown skyscraper and wave to the office workers.
For responding to business burglaries and other calls for service in a commercial district, owners and/or occupants were encouraged to paint the address number of their building in large contrasting numerals on the rooftops. Even though the address code in LA requires “even numbers on the south and east sides and odd numbers on north and west sides of streets,” the helicopter observer could get to the correct street and block number of a call for service but finding the exact mid-block address was nearly impossible. Therefore, painting address numbers on rooftops assisted in this effort and considerably reduced response time.
Not many homeowners practiced this address ID technique. However, frequently aircrews would spot a different type of identifying number; a telephone number painted on the roof of a private residence. I probably don’t have to explain what this meant, other than there must have been some lonely females and cop groupies in “La La Land.” Usually, these houses also had a swimming pool, which meant nude sunbathers. Enough said. What can I say…it’s just a perk of the job.
One of the most famous private residences that aircrews would be sure to give extra aerial patrol was Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Mansion. A few orbits on each shift was to ensure that all was well and that his “guests” around the pool were safe and secure. Just because we were airborne cops didn’t mean that we couldn’t still hold to the Department motto…To Protect and To Serve, right? Besides, why should all those Beach Patrol officers working in Venice Beach have all the fun?
Police Helicopter Pilot … It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
9 replies on “When Pigs Fly: The View From Above”
Fascinating–about something I knew 0 about!
“This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to. ” Having said all this, I will also tell you that flying in a helicopter is one of the most satisfying and exhilarating experiences I have ever enjoyed.
What I miss most is skimming over the trees at 100 knots + in a light observation helicopter. Now that’s’ really fun.
Great story Ron. Air Support did not exist when I was out there BUT I did have the pleasure to work with JIM BEALL at Metro who later went on the become the founder & first C.O. of your great organization.
Jim was a good leader. I’m sure that running ASD was always a big budget item, but respected him and thanked him for taking a chance of military-trained, helicopter pilots who had proven themselves in Vietnam.
My son-in-law worked drug enforcement in Eastern Oregon. He loved the days he hung out of a helicopter looking for grows in the wilderness. There are so many facets of law enforcement that are interesting. Thanks for an interesting post.
One of the best jobs I ever had. Couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do it.
You’re right. So many different fields to law enforcement.