BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The new Metro Area Crime Center helicopter is saving time, resources, and potentially lives in its first few months in action, thanks to its new crew and advanced camera system.
“This helicopter has a camera package installed that allows us multiple ways of seeing things other than just with the naked eye,” explains pilot Jonathan Johnson.
One of the things it found in recent days was a man in Mulga wanted for pouring gasoline on his front porch and threatening to set it on fire.
“The guy that was caught in the woods stated that normally he goes out in the woods and sits until the deputies leave,” Johnson explains. “He actually surrendered to the helicopter and told the deputies he gave up once he saw the helicopter.”
We rode along with Johnson and the tactical flight officer on a recent weeknight tour and within 10 minutes of takeoff, we saw the camera in use. The tactical flight officer spotted a car on a remote road in the middle of an abandoned mine.
“He does look like he’s dancing, he’s jamming out,” the tactical officer observed. “He might be sitting up there smoking. He has no idea we’re even here, we’re almost a mile away from him.”
Before the crew could call in a deputy on the ground to see what he was smoking, we heard a call for a routine traffic stop nearby and within 30 seconds we were hovering overhead, watching the stop unfold and watching this deputy’s back.
What looks routine can turn serious in seconds, as this crew knows all too well.
“We’ve actually been on a call and the deputy was in his car, standing outside his car but leaning in his car looking at something on his computer, and a person come running up to him,” the tactical officer explains. “I was able to tell him ‘hey you’ve got someone coming up on you.’ It could’ve been bad, really bad, because he had no idea.”
This crew has only been together since the new helicopter went into service in October, but they’ve also been on call 24-7 since then.
“We do not know when we’re going to be called or how often we’re going to be called,” Johnson says. “It usually catches us when we’re not completely ready. When we want it to happen it does not. It usually catches us when we’re walking out the door, when we’re sitting down to eat. That’s part of it.”
As night fell we headed to Center Point where this crew knows which old or abandoned roads to check for suspicious activity when it gets dark and sure enough on this night we find two cars parked at the top of a remote hill near a water tower, and the flight officer calls in a deputy patrolling nearby to see what’s up.
“They saw that car coming and took off--Coming at you right there unit, that’s them right there," he calls to his fellow officer on the ground.
We circled overhead as the deputy checks out the cars, and encourages them to get moving.
“Boy they changed their minds real quick, didn’t they?” Johnson observes.
“Head towards west Jefferson," the tactical officer radios, and within two seconds Johnson points the chopper’s nose down to pick up speed and races across the county. Deputies had been looking for a suspect wanted on multiple felony warrants for more than a week and had just contacted the tactical flight officer to say they had a new lead on where he may be hiding.
“I remember this place, he used to stay in that travel trailer right there," the flight officer notices as we close in. Using his infrared camera the tactical flight officer helps direct the search from the air.
“Guys, somebody probably outta cover that travel trailer over there. Doors open. Got somebody coming out on the porch right now.”
When deputies give the all clear here, we're directed to another property not far away where this suspect may be staying, and there the camera spots movement.
“Which way is he going? He’s pulling out of the driveway. He’s about 50 feet,” the officer radios to a caravan of deputies approaching on the ground. “Take a left, take a left in that driveway right there. You got him, you got him. You got one running back into the house, somebody needs to get down to the house. They’re running into the brick house. They just walked out and saw y’all and run back in.”
Turns out, neither of these guys is the suspect deputies were looking for, but both had outstanding warrants and were taken into custody while deputies continued the search back at the house with help from the heat seeking lens several thousand feet above.
“You got a vehicle that’s kind of hot over behind the shed. If you’re looking at the front of that house it’ll be to your left.” The deputy on the ground calls in using the chopper’s call signal “Star 1.”
“Star 1 are we walking the right way. We’re just walking out of the house."
"Yeah, keep going, walk that wood line straight behind that trailer is a vehicle.” the helicopter replies.
In the middle of this search, the realities of flight intrude, we’re running low on fuel. So Star 1 turns for its hangar and lands long enough to let us out and refuel, before heading back into the night and on patrol.