Reaching for the Sky

In 1981, the Tulsa Police Department began its Police Helicopter Unit under the Field Operations Support Division (FOSD). The unit started small, with only one Hughes 300C two-seat piston helicopter.

After one week in operation after initial training, one of the pilots, Chance Whiteman, and an officer serving as observer (Kelly Smythe), joined a pursuit over north Tulsa at night time. No one knows exactly what happened, but within minutes the helicopter went down, striking a tree, then crashing in a wooded area. Both officers were killed in the accident.

Instead of ceasing operations, the department, under Chief Harry Stege, forged ahead and replaced the crashed aircraft with a newer model. It was this machine that was used to train several more pilots and observers, and for two years was the only helicopter in operation.

 

In 1983, the department added a Hughes 500D turbine helicopter, N500TP.  Two weeks after receiving the helicopter, the crew, consisting of Pilots Craig Roberts and Joe Vandiver (himself a pilot and the unit's flight instructor), experienced an engine failure over central Tulsa. With only 400 feet of altitude at the time, there was not much time to react. Roberts and Vandiver selected the only place that was open that seemed within reach of an autorotation as all other areas around them were either large trees, phone poles, or houses.

The decision was made to attempt to do a "controlled crash" in the "green spot up ahead." The "green spot" was the lawn of a local church, and as luck would have it, they managed to clear the last row of trees, but ran out of collective (the stick that controls blade pitch) at about 30 feet. The helicopter, not able to maintain its glide any further and unable to cushion its fall, fell the last 30 feet and impacted the ground. Both pilots survived, though Roberts suffered some spinal compression due to the impact.

It was later determined that an O-ring failed in the engine-driven fuel pump, causing it to cease drawing fuel. As it is said in aviation concerning jet engines: "No fuel, no fire, no fly."  The same problem occurred two days later in a California Highway Patrol 500D as it flew cover for the Olympics in Los Angeles. It too went down, this time on a freeway. It landed safely, but was then hit by a truck.

 

Insurance (and a law suit) provided funding for replacement of this helicopter and the N number was carried forward to the new machine. I proved a workhorse for two more years, when a second turbine helicopter, a McDonnell Douglas 500E was purchased. This one was numbered N600TP. (McDonnell Douglas had purchased Hughes Helicopters and moved the operation from California to Mesa Arizona).

 

Roberts, being the department's only  FAA certified Airframe and Powerplant mechanic, served as Chief of Maintenance and Safety Pilot, doing maintenance flights, blade tracking, and test flying all helicopters when they came out of maintenance before they returned to patrol status. 

Roberts, who began his aviation career in 1968 after leaving the Marine Corps and attending Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, worked for Western Airlines in 1969, becoming one of the first Boeing 737 mechanics. Within the year, Roberts and his wife decided to move back to Tulsa, where he felt confident that he would become employed by American Airlines who had a huge maintenance center there. Instead of employment, there was a waiting list. With bills to be paid, Roberts looked for other work and found "temporary" employment with the Tulsa Police Department. The "temporary job" lasted until 1996, 27 years later, when Roberts finally retired.

 

Roberts on left.

 During those years, Roberts accumulated over 3400 flight hours, with 600 in airplanes (land), 36 in seaplanes, and the rest in helicopters. During the aviation portion of his career the Helicopter Unit became the Air Support Unit, grew in size and crewmembers, and acquired FLIR Infrared Imaging systems capable of seeing "heat" objects, such as people, animals and engines, night and day. In his civilian flying status, he has owned a Luscombe 8A, a Cessna 150, a M20 Mooney, and a Cessna 172.

 

Roberts flying "Police One" drops two divers from the Tulsa Police Dive Team into Skiatook Lake, Oklahoma.

 

In the last year on the department, Roberts was requested by the local office of the FBI to assist in the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing case (OKBOMB). This request was due to the fact that the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) knew Roberts, through his investigative journalism and writing, had contacts that the FBI did not. See the Oklahoma City Bombing Report that was submitted by Roberts for fascinating details on the case that are out of the mainstream assertion that McVeigh and Nichols acted alone.

 

LtCol. Mike Farrell on left, LtCol.Craig Roberts on right.

Roberts's dual career as a police officer and military officer included being attached by the Army to the 125th Tactical Fighter Squadron as the Ground Liaison Officer working in the Intelligence Section. As such, he was designated as air crew, and attended the Air Force Air-Ground Operations school at Hurlburt Field, Florida. (Folks, there is NOTHING like flying an F-16!)

 

 

 

About Helicopter Pilots:

Helicopter flight:
 
"A bunch of spare parts flying in close formation."  

"Anything that screws its way into the sky flies according to unnatural principals."

You never want to sneak up behind an old high-time helicopter pilot and clap your hands.  He will instantly dive for cover and most likely whimper...then get up and smack the crap out of you.

There are no old helicopters laying around airports like you see old airplanes. There is a reason for this. Come to think of it, there are not many old high-time helicopter pilots hanging around airports either so the first issue is mute.

You can always tell a helicopter pilot in anything moving: a train, an airplane, a car or a boat. They never smile, they are always listening to the machine and they always hear something they think is not right.  Helicopter pilots fly in a mode of intensity, actually more like "spring loaded" while waiting for pieces of their ship to fall off.

Flying a helicopter at any altitude over 500 feet is considered reckless and should be avoided. Flying a helicopter at any altitude or condition that precludes a landing in less than 20 seconds is considered outright foolhardy.

Remember in a helicopter you have about one second to lower the collective in an engine failure before the craft becomes unrecoverable. Once you've failed this maneuver the machine flies about as well as a 2 ton meat locker. Even a perfectly executed autorotation only gives you a glide ratio slightly better than that of a brick. 

When your wings are leading, lagging, flapping, precessing and moving faster than your fuselage there's something unnatural going on.  Is this the way men were meant to fly?

While hovering, if you start to sink a bit, you pull up on the collective while twisting the throttle, push with your left foot (more torque) and move the stick left (more translating tendency) to hold your spot. If you now need to stop rising, you do the opposite in that order.  Sometimes in wind you do this many times each second. Great fun is letting a fighter pilot go for a ride and try this.

For Helicopters: You never want to feel a sinking feeling in your gut (low "g" pushover) while flying a two bladed under slung teetering rotor system. You are about to do a snap-roll to the right and crash.  For that matter, any remotely aerobatic maneuver should be avoided in a Huey.

Don't push your luck. It will run out soon enough anyway. If everything is working fine on your helicopter consider yourself temporarily lucky.  Something is about to break.

There are two types of helicopter pilots: Those that have crashed, and those that are going to.

Harry Reasoner once wrote the following about helicopter pilots: "The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by an incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly.  It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter. This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to."

Having said all this, I must admit that flying in a helicopter is one of the most satisfying and exhilarating experiences I have ever enjoyed: skimming over the tops of trees at 100 knots is something we should all be able to do at least once.

And remember the fighter pilot's prayer: "Lord I pray for the eyes of an eagle, the heart of a lion and the balls of a combat helicopter pilot."

Many years later I know that it was sometimes anything but fun, but now it IS something to brag about for those of us who survived the experience.

 

 

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