By Ed Brock
Circling high in search of crime, the Clayton County Police Department Aviation Unit shares the view, and the airspace, with the birds.
As they fly together the unit's head, Capt. David Johnson, and one of the two other pilots, Sgt. Tom Kearns, keep a close eye out for their feathered fellow flyers.
"Sometimes a hawk will actually attack the bubble," Johnson said.
On this particular day they are flying a Bell 206L3, the larger and newer of the unit's two marked helicopters. Painted in black and red, the chopper is an aerial squad car that can double as an air ambulance if needed.
The other helicopter, an Army surplus Bell OH 58, is mostly used as a backup.
"We mostly respond to foot chases, car chases ... any crime in progress," Kearns said.
"We're kind of considered the ultimate force multiplier," said Johnson.
"We're just a tool, part of the big picture," added Kearns.
As they fly, the two men (or Officer David Maples, the third pilot, when he is on duty) listen to the emergency dispatch for signs of trouble. A call about a wanted person being in the area sends the "Falcon" hurtling toward the north end of the county in search of a green pickup truck.
They fly low enough for details on the ground to be evident, children in swimming pools and dogs running in fenced in back yards clearly recognizable.
The fugitive escapes this time, but it's a rarity. From its vantage point the Falcon can see an area that it would take several ground units to cover.
And it can be seen, too.
"We've noticed that when the helicopter goes up the calls for major crimes go down," Johnson said.
For night patrols the helicopters have powerful search lights and an infrared camera that can be swapped between the two depending on which one is being used. The larger chopper has a radio that carries 8,000 frequencies so the pilot can communicate with ground ambulances and various police and fire departments.
They have GPS navigation systems and equipment for tracking "LoJack" devices in stolen vehicles. The Bell 206L3 can stay up for nearly four hours with full tanks and only two people on board.
The unit has to fly through some of the busiest airspace in the country, including, on occasion, the air around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The air traffic controllers there are usually very cooperative in letting the Falcon enter their space.
"They know we know what we're doing and won't interfere with their operations," Johnson said.
Johnson started the unit in 1979, buying some helicopter air frames for $350 each, fixing them up and operating them for 10 years before selling them in 1985 for a profit that went to buying the next generation of choppers for the unit. With the support of the county government and different police chiefs, and some help from seized drug money, the unit grew into what it is today.
Along with the three pilots the Falcon unit includes Tactical Flight Officer Danny Avery and mechanic Don Freeman. The unit is the only one to fly for 26 years accident-free and Kearns and Johnson are accident prevention counselors with the Aviation Safety Council. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recently recognized Johnson for excellence in police aviation management.
"I flew in the Army, but I learned a lot when I came here," said Kearns, who has been with the unit since 1995.
And Johnson has hopes for the future. Eventually he'd like to see 24-hour aerial patrols.