Local News

Ask Anything: 10 questions with a Highway Patrol helicopter pilot

Posted April 7, 2009
Updated May 21, 2010

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What would a normal day in the life of a helicopter pilot in the North Carolina State Highway Patrol be like? Also what would be the craziest thing that you have seen out on patrol in the skies? – Charles Chrismon, Smithfield

The great thing about being a pilot for the Highway Patrol is that there is no such thing as a normal day. Missions could be a photo mission of a crime scene, marijuana eradication, surveillance flights, coverage during the execution of a high risk warrant, surveillance during a Presidential or Vice-presidential visit, etc.

An immediate response flight could be a vehicle chase, bank robbery, manhunt for a murder suspect, searching for a lost child or elderly subject, or any other quick response from the aviation unit that could affect the outcome of a dangerous situation. Since we maintain 24 hours a day – 7 days a week coverage through scheduled shifts and on-call status, it is imperative that we stand prepared at all times to respond to calls for service.

We fly at night with Night Vision Goggles and have thermal imaging systems (FLIR) and spotlights onboard to assist with locating items of interest (people, vehicles, occasionally unintentional animals such as deer). We pride ourselves on being ready to respond when the State needs us.

To answer your question on the craziest thing that I have seen would take more room than they allow me in this forum. We see so many things while we are flying around the state, most when we least expect it. We've had bears in eastern North Carolina to stand up as though they are going to attack us.

One particular event that stands out in my mind is a night that the Highway Patrol requested us to aide in the search for a handcuffed fugitive who had escaped custody. The small wooded area of interest also contained numerous "hiding spaces" that made the search even more difficult for ground units to locate the subject.

We arrived on-scene and began to look the area over in great detail. As we started looking, my co-pilot spotted a "hot spot" that looked interesting. We called in the ground units to search the area. They notified us that it was a dog. I asked them if they were looking at the dog in the pen or looking in what appeared to be a thicket of weeds, logs and briars.

They advised they were looking at the dog in the pen but were standing next to the thicket. I asked them what they saw in the thicket. They advised nothing was in the thicket. I advised that something (person, animal, etc.) was in the thicket. They still could not see anything. I asked them to go into the thicket and I would "walk" them onto the target. They moved forward until I advised them that the "hot spot" was at their feet. They then located the fugitive right at their feet.

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As a helicopter pilot for the N.C. SHP, I understand you are involved in search and rescue operations. Is this the main focus of your work? Which part do you enjoy more, catching bad guys or saving lives? – Ann Litts, Cary

Search and rescue is a large part of our duties. The biggest part of our job is to find things ... people, illegal drugs, stolen property, etc. The rescue aspect of the job is just now beginning to become a reality with the addition of our new aircraft this past calendar year. We still have a long way to go with the training but once we are up and running, the rescue piece to the puzzle will help the state out greatly.

It is nice to know that every day I go to work the possibility exists that I may make the difference in someone’s life, hopefully for the better. It is a great job because you can actually see right before your eyes the effects you have on the mission that you have been requested to help with. I treat all missions as if it were my loved one that was lost or had been victimized.

To have a mother or loved one come up to you and hug your neck with tears in their eyes and thank you for finding their missing loved one or finding the suspect that hurt their family is a feeling that can not be described. It makes all the training, long hours, middle of the night call outs and lack of sleep worth it.

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In choosing a career that involves personal risk, what weighs most in your decision, 1) Your enjoyment of flying? 2) Your sense of patriotism and sense of duty? 3) Money? How did you arrive at your decision? – Jimmie Tutor, Fuquay-Varina

I joined the military out of high school, so I believe it would be patriotism and sense of duty. I had never flown before so it wasn’t flying and you don’t enter into public service for the money. I really wanted to serve my country and at the time the military was the best way to achieve this goal.

After I entered the military, I began to learn more about aviation opportunities in the military (National Guard) and I applied for flight school and was accepted. During this time I also became intrigued with a career in law enforcement and in particular the N.C. Highway Patrol. Once I completed flight school I returned to North Carolina and applied to the Highway Patrol and was accepted into the NCSHP basic school.

Through my family and faith, I have always wanted to serve my country, state and community. We have the greatest country in the world and I have been able to observe this through my many trips across this country and my deployment overseas to Afghanistan. I have learned so much over the years and to serve this country as well as the citizens of this great state has been a true blessing. I am truly fortunate to be able to work with some of the greatest public servants around.

I see first hand day in and day out the struggles that the first responders face and the “can do” attitude that they bring to the table to help their fellow man. Every day I am impressed by these individuals and I am able to say that there truly is still “good people” that try to make a difference every single day for very little compensation and no reward. With all the tragedy that has taken place in our country the past four weeks; I still have faith in my fellow man. There is no better calling than to serve your fellow man.

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Do you have FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) on your birds? Any weapons? What is the current model bird you guys fly? What's the candle power on your spot lights now? – Joel, Durham

We have four dedicated night aircraft with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) systems installed. These aircraft are strategically located across the state to create an efficient and effective response anywhere in the state. The weapons that we carry on board the aircraft are our issued weapons. These vary depending on the mission we are responding to and the requirements of that mission. Some of the weapons may be anything from a handgun to a shotgun to a rifle.

The current model aircraft that makes up a majority of the fleet is the military surplus OH-58A+. This aircraft is a military surplus aircraft that the patrol qualified to receive through the Department of Defense. We have seven OH-58 aircraft along with one Bell 206B (the civilian equivalent to this aircraft) and one Bell 407 helicopter. The OH-58s and the Bell 206B range in age from 38 to 41years old. The Bell 407 is the new aircraft we added to the fleet last calendar year. On our night aircraft we also have an SX-16 nightsun spotlight. This spotlight is 30-40 million candlepower peak intensity with the ability to focus 4–20 degrees.

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Do you ever take civilians along on a helicopter ride just to observe? – Chel Douglass, Garner

Unfortunately, we do not have a ride along program for the aviation unit. Due to the inherent danger involved in aerial law enforcement operations, it would not be feasible to accommodate such a request. This is not to say that I would not love to do it, it just is not practical with our mode of operation. I would love for everyone to be able to experience the profession that I know and love. There is no better feeling than to know that the work you do is having a positive impact on the citizens of this state.

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With the advent of the VIPER radio system statewide, are you finding radio communication with other agencies improving? – Robert Jordan, Dunn

Most definitely. The VIPER system has been one of the greatest improvements to states emergency response plan that I have seen in recent years. This system has such a great impact on overall interoperability communications and I am able to see it first hand throughout the state.

A majority of our missions are for other agencies across the state. This may be a mission for a local agency (town, city or county agency) up to the federal government (FBI, DEA, Secret Service, etc.). During these missions, it is critical that we are able to establish direct communications with the agency we are assisting. VIPER allows everyone to communicate on the same system and keep everyone informed of the developing situation at all times. This is extremely critical during manhunt situations or any other situation that timely communications is crucial to preventing loss of life.

This system allows us to communicate with several agencies at the same time at the same incident on the same talk group. The ability to communicate with all players during an event can never be underestimated or under-appreciated. Examples of this is during any major sporting event that numerous agencies are participating in, visits from the President of the United States where local, state and federal agencies are working together, searches for missing persons that include local and state assets during the search, and any natural or man-made disaster within the state.

An example of this system is we had a Highway Patrol aircraft flying a mission in Murphy, the western most part of North Carolina. While they were flying this mission, I was able to talk to them on the VIPER system directly from my office in Raleigh.

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Have you ever been forced to autorotate (land without engine power) in real life before and what was the outcome? – Matthew Gardner, Angier

Fortunately, I have not had to autorotate a single engine helicopter. We train on a routine basis for such an emergency and other emergencies that could possibly present themselves. We conduct emergency procedure training with the aircraft manufacturer yearly which includes full touchdown autorotations both during the day and at night utilizing Night Vision Goggles (NVG). We also conduct quarterly in-house training that includes training on mission equipment, emergency procedures and instrument proficiency flights.

I have had to conduct single engine operations on a twin engine helicopter while conducting operations in the military. The worst situation that I have been in was when I was in Afghanistan in 2003-04 with the military flying Apaches and I got a warning light that advised me that the main transmission was starting to fail. Due to the location of the pending failure, I had to fly the aircraft another 30 minutes to our Forward Operating Base (FOB) where I had help.

This was not my idea of fun since subsequent warning lights started to come on during the 30 minute travel time. I was able to “limp” the aircraft into the FOB and once I shut the aircraft down, the transmission dumped all the transmission oil on the flight line. The transmission had to be changed out in the field due to extensive damage. The one good thing to this story is that I now know how long a transmission on an Apache helicopter will last when it is coming apart.

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How fast can you stop a helicopter from flying to hovering say if you see something suspicious? Thanks! – Mary Millard, Pittsboro

This is an interesting question. As we fly around the state we are constantly looking down at the ground (and up to ensure we do not run into anything ... don’t want to have a really bad day) to observe things that may not be appropriate for the area. An example of this would be a nice new sport utility vehicle in the middle of the woods with no one around. This is not a common place to find such a vehicle and therefore we would stop to further investigate as a possible stolen vehicle left in the woods.

If we are flying along at around 100-115 miles per hour groundspeed, we would immediately reduce power and start a 180 degree turn to the side of the aircraft that the suspicious item was last seen. This gives us the ability to slow the aircraft at the same time, turn towards the item and keep a set of eyes on the item. If we lose sight of the item of interest, we pick something in the area that we can keep an eye on to guide us into the area again and then try to reestablish contact with the item.

You may also be descending from altitude to get a better look at the item or confirming what you thought you saw is indeed was you saw. At the same time you are looking around you to ensure that you do not run into anything that is above the ground that may want to cause you harm (towers and trees are good at this). This aerial ballet, if conducted properly, can be extremely effective at keeping your eyes on the “prize” and mitigate the risk that is associated with this type of flying.

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Are the number of hours helicopter pilots are allowed to fly regulated like the pilots of major airlines? – D P, Fuquay-Varina

Our flight times are regulated internally due to the nature of our business. We have our own standard operating procedures (SOP) that we utilize to ensure that our pilots are meeting all the guidelines necessary to ensure safe operations.

We have crews that are scheduled either a day shift or night shift. The night shift crews are subject to being “on call” after their shift has concluded and “on call” on their days off to ensure statewide coverage 24 hours a day 7 days a week. As you can see, this can create possible duty hour and flight hour issues. To mitigate these issues, we have a maximum total flight time within a 24 hour period of eight hours for a one-pilot crew and 10 hours for a two-pilot crew.

The Unit Commander or his designee, on a case-by-case basis, may waive these limitations. We have never had to waive these limitations because when a crew gets close we start the management process to ensure another fresh crew is available to take over duties. This ability to waive these limitations is for extreme emergencies and the decision is not taken lightly. We are extremely safety minded and try our best to always find a safe way to accomplish any mission that we have been tasked with to complete.

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I would like to get information for my son. He is currently a Crew Chief on a Blackhawk overseas and is waiting for is packet to be approved for training at Fort Rucker, AL to be a pilot. He is 25, approximately 6'4" and desires to be a trooper with N.C. Highway Patrol when he gets out of the military and would like to know what would his steps need to be in order to become a pilot with N.C. Highway Patrol. Thanks. Proud Dad. – Pete Bohler, Willow Spring

Our application process for a position within the aviation unit is only open to current uniformed (sworn) members of the Highway Patrol. Our minimum qualifications to interview for a position within the unit is you must have been a Trooper for a minimum of two years, not under a current disciplinary action, hold a minimum of a private pilot certificate and be able to hold a current FAA Class II medical certificate for a co-pilot position. Keep in mind this is the minimum qualifications to be eligible for the application process.

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  • abf1 Apr 9, 2009

    It's evident that Mr. Woodard genuinely loves what he does, both with the NCSHP and the NCNG. Thank you for all that you do!

  • GoldenLover Apr 7, 2009

    Great blog! Answered a lot of my questions. I had the opportunity to fly with Trooper pilot Chuck Boyd back in 1986 while I was on the SWAT team with the Raleigh PD. We were searching for a lost elderly gentleman. One funny thing that happened was when we got low over a patch of woods where a ground crew was and they started hollering on the radio for us to back off. We had stirred up a whole nest of wasps!

  • lilreno is in the wind Apr 7, 2009

    Very interesting