The call comes from dispatch late on an October night: It seems a car is somewhere in the trees, having “flipped about 20 times,” according to a witness, off Great Trinity Forest Way. Could the helicopter unit come help find it?
Senior corporals Mark Colborn and Rob Bryan, in dark blue jumpsuits, prepare to head skyward. They’re two of 10 pilots who staff Air One, the Dallas Police Department’s aviation unit, which marked its 50th anniversary this month.
Senior Cpl. Rob Bryan, one of Air One’s pilots, shoulders his gun holster as he gears up to respond to a call.(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)
One might not grasp a police helicopter’s full capability, sailing as it does, usually on purpose, at inconspicuous heights overhead. In addition to leading hunts for suspects or missing kids, copters provide backup during pursuits, help reduce police workloads and offer an imposing presence to defuse hostile situations.
“The copter is a big, loud machine with an intimidating look to it,” says unit supervisor Sgt. Todd Limerick. “Once we’re seen, criminals are more cautious about what they’re going to do.”
Copters respond 24/7 to calls of street racing, prowlers, business alarms and even airplane laser strikes; they also serve as presidential escorts, with a Secret Service member aboard. The unit has discovered marijuana farms, rescued stranded kayakers and spotted gators on Trinity River banks; it can carry fire captains or police detectives over blaze or crime scenes to direct operations or analyze evidence.
“The helicopter acts as a set of eyes in the sky, and as a force-multiplier, being able to quickly search large areas of land that would normally require many officers,” said Dallas police Maj. Teena Schultz, noting the unit’s “vital role” in tactical operations, patrol support and events such as parades or protests.
Air One gets a bird’s eye view of the Dallas skyline while answering one of the 600 to 700 calls it handles each month.(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)
In all, the unit answers 600 to 700 calls a month, more than double the 250 or so handled before acquiring its game-changing thermal camera.
All this despite fielding a comparatively small fleet for a city of Dallas’ size.
“Officers on the ground are customer service to the city of Dallas,” Limerick says. “We’re customer service for those officers.”
The rollover on Great Trinity Forest Way, near Pemberton Hill Road, happened earlier in the night, the driver reportedly helped from the trees by a passerby and taken to a hospital. Now, police want to find the car, which is far enough into the woodland to be unseen from the roadway.
And so the Bell JetRanger rumbles to life and lifts off the wooden launch pad outside its hangar at Dallas Executive Airport in Red Bird, headed to the scene.
Believing copters could enhance police operations, former Dallas Police Chief Frank Dyson founded the unit in 1969 with a leased helicopter just before becoming top cop. The department secured two used copters the next year.
The unit has since replaced its fleet several times, most recently in 2007, when Dallas spent $5.3 million for three new aircraft — including the two small Bell 206 JetRangers now in service, one of which was last off the assembly line.
“They’re kind of the Chevy of the helicopter world,” Limerick says.
The third was a little-used but tactically valuable seven-seat Bell 407, which the city sold in 2010 at a $500,000 loss during a tough economic stretch.
With just two copters, Dallas’ aerial power trails that of other cities: Los Angeles, the world’s largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation, has 19 helicopters and an airplane. According to Limerick, Las Vegas and Houston have seven aircraft apiece; Phoenix has six; San Antonio and San Diego have four. Fort Worth, like Dallas, has two.
“Dallas has always maintained a small fleet for its size,” Limerick said. “Obviously, there are demands on the city, and you prioritize. We do what we can. But it’s always better and safer to have a more capable arsenal.”
The copters travel up to 120 mph, 150 with a friendly wind. They’re built for five people, but with a heavy camera and spotlight plus other equipment and two pilots, only one more person can fly — as long as the gas tank is less than half full.
Searching for the lost vehicle from 500 feet above Great Trinity Forest Way, Bryan pilots the craft, in touch with Love Field traffic control, while Colborn acts as tactical field officer, speaking with dispatch. Like their colleagues, both are sworn officers who have done time on the streets.
Colborn, a former Army pilot, is graying and upbeat, the unit’s unofficial photographer and its longest-serving member. If you follow DPD’s Air One on Twitter, it’s probably Colborn who took the photo.
As the craft wobbles and weaves, he guides the thermal camera across the trees, seeking heat sources. Near a squad car parked roadside, white dots of police flashlights dance into the copse. Bryan directs the 30-million-candlepower spotlight along the dark greenery, but there’s no sign of the car.
“You’d think if a car flipped 20 times, it would leave a debris trail,” Colborn says.
Finally, a heat source. Colborn tells the officers below that they’re practically on top of it.
It turns out to be just the car’s battery, ejected but still emitting warmth.
The unit’s office is long and bland as a station wagon, with model copters perched on a hallway shelf and an attached hangar housing the aircraft. But the oddest fixture rests in Limerick’s office: a mounted bird outfitted with a helmet and a plaque reading “E.O.W. 03-23-2015.”
A plaque notes the “end of watch” for a bird that shattered the windshield of the Dallas police helicopter in 2015, injuring Sgt. Todd Limerick.(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)
“I took that duck in the head,” Limerick says.
That night, he was flying over Lake Ray Hubbard, looking for a missing boater. As he turned the copter so Senior Cpl. Laurent “Frenchie” Lespagnol could get the spotlight in position, Limerick caught a glimpse of something in the dark.
Then, a sound like a shotgun blast as the bird — actually a coot — shattered the windshield: Limerick, dazed, couldn’t see out of his left eye. He covered his eye and felt the warm blood running down his arm, nearly blacking out as Lespagnol took over, setting the craft down where an ambulance had waited to aid the lost boater.
Limerick’s forehead had been gashed, his nose broken, his eye left with internal bleeding. As he awaited transport, Lespagnol returned with the bird.
Put it in the freezer, Limerick told him. It would be six weeks before he could fly again – but that coot never would, hence the initials EOW, or End Of Watch, typically applied to fallen officers.
Despite the dark humor, Limerick realizes he was lucky to survive.
“I now know what the phrase ‘seeing stars’ means,” he says.
The camera has proved transformative for the unit, acquired with grant money and capable of 360-degree views from 2 miles away. It’s why efficacy has more than doubled.
“It’s made a huge difference in how we respond to calls and how effective we are,” Limerick says. “A few weeks ago, we saw guys stripping a car from a couple miles away – and have video of them committing the crime. That evidence is helpful in court.”
The camera allows the copter to fly at higher and less detectable heights, not having to rely on officers’ eyesight.
“Before, we were flying at 400 or 500 feet with a big light, trying to find guys who were hiding,” Colborn says. “It … wasn’t working out.”
The camera now enables “tactical apprehensions” – say, during vehicle chases, when ground units back off should conditions be deemed unsafe for pursuit. Suspects might figure they’ve gotten away, while from a quarter-mile high, a copter is keeping tabs on the vehicle, directing squad cars toward a safer arrest location.
“We can take the danger of a high-speed chase off the streets,” Limerick says. “We’re up in the sky and people aren’t really paying attention to us.”
As Bryan circles the copter over Great Trinity Forest Way, Colborn knows that with the missing car’s battery found, the vehicle must be nearby. Eventually the camera finds a second heat source.
“There it is,” he says.
Bryan keeps the spotlight on the vehicle until officers can reach the site.
Mission accomplished, the copter answers several calls of reported gunfire, from areas as far-flung as Pleasant Grove and northwest and Far North Dallas. On the monitor, neighborhoods below pass through the camera’s view, street names flashing in yellow onscreen, property lines in red.
Senior Cpl. Mark Colborn, a former Army pilot, is the helicopter unit’s unofficial photographer and its longest-serving member.(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)
Each call is cleared in minutes as the pilots survey the areas, seeking any lingering disturbances and finding none.
“It saves the trouble of sending [ground] officers,” Colborn said. “They could spend an hour on a call like that.”
At last, fuel is short and it’s time to return to base to refuel. The darkened city spreads below in shadowy silhouette, outlined by latticelike grids of empty supermarket parking lots and streetlights casting a honey glow over vacant boulevards.
Bryan heads southward, making a scenic flyby over the tornado-ravaged Home Depot on Forest Lane and then the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas, where mountainlike wind currents pivot the craft in place like a teacup ride.
“Yee-haaah!” Colborn says.
“We’ve been turned sideways before,” Bryan says. “That gets your attention real quick.”
Within a few minutes, the bird has set down at the hangar, awaiting its next call.
Senior Cpl. Mark Colborn ties down the main rotor blade of one of the unit’s helicopters outside a hangar at Dallas Executive Airport as high winds blow into Dallas.(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer) Thanks to the Courtesy of :