Sunday, December 17, 2017

John Lindsey: Up in the air with the California Highway Patrol

One the most dangerous things we do every day is a drive or ride in a vehicle.

I don’t remember a week that has gone by that the newspaper didn’t have a story of someone who was either killed or severely injured in an automobile/motorcycle/bicycle accident on our highways. Many of us live in a paradigm of acceptance, including myself, of the carnage that takes place on our roadways. We live in fear of a shark attack or flying in an aircraft when the mundane things, like driving, are usually the most dangerous.

The statistics certainly bear this out: In San Luis Obispo County 1,450 people were either killed or injured in vehicle accidents in 2014; in Santa Barbara County, it was 2,510 who had their lives dramatically altered. Unfortunately, with a large percentage of this figure, the driver was under the influence.

When one of these all too common accidents occurs, our first responders (police and fire) are the ones who arrived on the scene of a crash at all times of the day and night, in every type of weather condition imaginable. In these circumstances, they feverishly work to save lives. Worst yet, they console the family members of those who were killed.

So often, the first responder on the scene of the accident is a solitary California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer who has to decipher in a very short time frame how to make the situation safe for all those involved. An irreplaceable tool that can make the difference in locating and rescuing survivors are the CHP’s air assets.

The CHP Air Operations Program has 150 crew members who fly 15 fixed-wing aircraft and 15 helicopters stationed at eight strategically located air units throughout the state. Located at the Paso Robles Municipal Airport, one of these air units covers the CHP’s Coastal Division that stretches along the California coastline from Santa Cruz all the way to south to Ventura. It’s composed of eight outstanding pilots and flight officers and a contracted maintainer. They have one helicopter and two fixed-wing aircraft.

The crew members who fly in these aircraft are all highly trained specialists that started their careers as patrol officers on our state highways, and all are required to be emergency medical technicians (EMTs). The tactical flight officers are also qualified paramedics with previous real-time experience, for example with fire departments or in the military.

Last week, I got to go flying with them in their Airbus H125s helicopter. While in the U.S. Navy, I amassed roughly 4,000 hours of flight time in helicopters and fixed wing aircraft as an enlisted aircrewman operating all sorts of radars, sonars, and sophisticated camera systems.

I've got to tell you, I was so impressed with these peace officers professionalism, safety culture and airmanship, but also the quality of their rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. Their helicopter includes a rescue hoist, medical gear, a glass cockpit with state-of-the-art avionics, a public announcement speaker that's audible for those on the ground, numerous radios that can talk with any first responder on the sea, land or in the air, a very bright searchlight that can switch to infrared light and a camera turret with a FLIR 380-HDc camera system.

This military-grade optic system allows the aircrew to zoom in to see the smallest of objects, including license plates from thousands of feet away. The camera can also switch to a combination of visible and infrared light to look for missing persons or bad actors lurking in the darkest of nights or during the day in some of the most rugged landscape in the state or in your own neighborhood.

Each year, they perform numerous rescues which have saved many lives over the years while maintaining an impressive safety record. Not only do they perform law enforcement and search and rescue missions, but they work closely with Homeland Security, keeping a watch on our state’s vital infrastructure like bridges, electric transmission lines, dams, railroads and power plants while also checking for wildfires.

On a bright afternoon a few years ago, I was operating one of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. marine monitoring vessels off the coast of Diablo Canyon Power Plant when out of nowhere a fixed-wing aircraft flew overhead with large lettering that spelled out California Highway Patrol written on the underside of its wings. A moment later, I got a call on the marine radio Channel 16 asking the boat off the power plant to switch to Channel 7. When I did, the CHP officers in the aircraft asked who I was.

The next time you get pulled over for a traffic infraction, you should thank the officer for trying to save your life and others on the road.

Story and photo gallery ➤

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