Eyes in the Sky: Jurisdictions Combine to Improve Helicopter Patrols

Pilot Jim Hilderbrand performs a pre-flight check on a St. Louis County helicopter before flying his shift. (Rick Graefe photo/Suburban Journals)

Helicopter pilot Jim Hilderbrand is none too happy with the outcome of the evening's events. He openly expressed his feelings as he settled in for a late-night cup of coffee in the ARCH Air Medical Headquarters break room.

What's got the St. Louis County police helicopter pilot so frustrated is that moments earlier, a suspect he was chasing by air apparently had eluded police capture ... for now, anyway.

"We did what we could. You're too hard on yourself, brother," his co-pilot, Korey Kline, reassured him.

Although Kline and Hilderbrand share the cockpit of a helicopter, they have two very different jobs. While Hilderbrand does all of the flying, Kline checks the radios for incoming police calls, operates the massive spotlight (referred to by the pilots as a "night sun") and uses the infrared technology when needed. He also spends a lot of time looking out the window of the helicopter for suspicious behavior. Essentially, one flies and one's the eyes.

Perhaps what's even more unique in Kline and Hilderbrand's differing roles is that while Hilderbrand is a St. Louis County police officer, Kline is a St. Louis city police officer. They are part of a new air support unit being shared by St. Louis and St. Louis County, which eliminates the respective agencies' boundaries in the sky and vastly improves the communication between the ground units. It also saves the taxpayers money while increasing the resources for all of the crime-fighting agencies involved.

For example, prior to the city and county teaming up June 1 for one all-encompassing air support unit, each had one helicopter for use. Now, they have a total of four helicopters and one fixed-wing airplane at their disposal. As for St. Charles County, which soon will join the program, that jurisdiction had no air support unit at all.

"It's working out very well, better than expected," said Capt. Kurt Frisz of the St. Louis County Police Department. "The underline for the entire program is it's going to be more cost-effective for these three agencies to provide air support because we're not duplicating efforts."

Hilderbrand and Kline couldn't agree more.

"We're ecstatic (with the program)," Kline said. "Once you talk to the captain, he's got us all excited. It just makes so much sense what we're doing."

"There's a lot of positive feedback from the road officers from the city and the county." Hilderbrand added. "You no longer have that line in the sand — at least from the aviation standpoint."

Hilderbrand and Kline were on a Friday 4 p.m. to midnight shift the day of the aforementioned chase. The duo had spent a good portion of the shift's first half grounded by severe thunderstorms. As the weather cleared, the pilots were ready to go up immediately after their dinner break.

As night fell, the helicopter rose 700 feet to hide in the darkness and become the police department's all-seeing eye in the sky. Or as Hilderbrand simply put it when recounting the pursuit of a stolen Dodge Intrepid about a month earlier — in which the driver tried to avoid the helicopter — "You can't lose the helicopter."

The night's action is anything but dull as the officers go from one incident to another — a stolen automobile here, a triple shooting there and even a small street brawl at one point. Sure, there is some downtime like most jobs, but there is rarely a lull in the air support unit. While scanning the different radio frequencies for more incidents and maintaining communication with various area airports to ensure shared airspace, the pilots take it upon themselves to scan the ground for any suspicious behavior.

At one point, Hilderbrand spotted a couple of men standing in a dark, open junkyard lot. The helicopter was then turned about and Kline hit them with the spotlight to see if they would flee in guilt. Instead, the massive light pouring down upon them only bewildered the innocent, unsuspecting men. Just imagine if you were out casually chatting one night, then were hit with a light the power of 30 million candles.

Of course, the greatest excitement for the night came from the call across the radio about a shooting targeting police officers. The helicopter then pointed in the direction of the ensuing ground chase and tilted forward into action. As it beelined across the city skyline and approached the chase, the feeling was that of Spiderman swinging into action.

From a distance it could suddenly be made out that a pair of taillights was speeding and weaving throughout the Martin Luther King Drive traffic as that familiar red and blue flashing was in pursuit directly behind. Within a matter of seconds, the helicopter was bathing the suspect's car in light from the "night sun." A foot chase followed after the suspects drove their car into a yard and fled the automobile. The driver — who was also the shooter — and a passenger ducked under coverage briefly before Hilderbrand and Kline spotted the passenger as he ran down an alley.

The passenger was followed from the air until ducking into a corridor between apartments and seeking shelter from the spotlight under a large cluster of trees. There he remained as the helicopter created a perimeter by encircling the area while police cars flocked to the scene. Suddenly, countless little lights popped up in the square section of land below as ground officers pulled flashlights from their belts to aid in recovering the suspect.

Despite Kline's infrared search from 600 feet up that was penetrating enough to find a cat hiding between two pipes at a nearby facility, the passenger never turned up. Chances are he ducked into one of the nearby abandoned buildings, but after the having nabbed the shooter, the ground units were not going to go on a random search for the passenger.

The passenger most likely would be caught within a couple of days. After all, another potential chase would only have put innocent bystanders in harm's way.

Meanwhile, the helicopter needed refueling, so Hilderbrand and Kline reluctantly headed to the ARCH Air Medical Headquarters. Though Hilderbrand wanted to fly over the area one last time, it was time to end the shift.

As the helicopter flew to its home base at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, the city and county now felt quiet below as midnight approached. To the listener on the radio, Hilderbrand offered a solemn "Good night, Bill." An unknown voice on the other end nonchalantly replied, "Good night, Jimbo."

St. Louis Metropolitan Police

First date of combined force:
June 1, 2004

Agencies involved:
St. Louis Metropolitan Police
St. Charles County Police

Number of vehicles:
Four helicopters
One fixed-wing airplane

Value of recovered stolen items by Metro air support unit and the combined forces in 2004:
$1.5 million


Ryan Heinz
Of the Suburban Journals
updated: 09/07/2004 02:56 PM