By MATTHEW HALL
Capital News Service
LANSING – The State Police’s team of helicopter pilots is set to break personal records in flight hours and hopes to move some of its copters to the Upper Peninsula and the Northern Lower Peninsula.
“This year we’re going to be closing in on 1,770 hours, which is a lot,” said Lt. Christopher Bush, commander of the aviation unit in the department’s Special Operations Division. The team flew about 1,500 hours in 2012 and 1,265 in 2011.
The aviation unit provides a number of services to counties and cities, including search and rescues, fly-overs for pot fields, traffic control and criminal pursuits.
The unit’s four pilots operate three aircraft: Bell 430 and Bell LongRanger III helicopters, as well as a fixed-wing Cessna 182, which is mainly used for transporting special forces teams like bomb squads to remote areas.
Ever since Gov. Rick Snyder’s Secure Cities initiative commenced in March, the pilots have seen their workload increase significantly in Southern Michigan.
The initiative puts special attention on Flint, Detroit, Saginaw and Pontiac, which rank among Michigan’s most violent cities, according to Nicole Lisabeth, a State Police public information officer.
“We’re the eye in the sky,” Bush said, describing local police departments’ desires for more air support from the State Police.
“Since we started patrol in the city of Flint, they’ve had only one car chase where the suspect was able to get away,” he added. The team has also assisted in more than 200 felony arrests in Detroit.
Thermal imaging is also a highly requested service.
“Any heat that’s generated, if a guy is trying to hide in some bushes or something, a FLIR (forward looking infrared camera) can illuminate that guy and lead officers to his location, which is a pretty popular request,” Bush said.
A recent dramatic example of some of the team’s other night vision abilities occurred last spring, when two men crashed their airboat at night in Saginaw Bay:
“It had flipped and busted through the ice and the guy was calling 911,” Bush recalled. “The pilot told him to hold up his cell phone in the air and they were able to pick that up from miles away with night vision goggles.
“The Coast Guard was coming out of Detroit, so they were about an hour away and they ended up saving this guy’s life, whereas his partner didn’t make it.”
That cellphone trick would come in handy in the wide open spaces of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where search and rescue is one of the most frequent requests, Bush said.
“With our assets all being stationed in Lansing right now, in the future we’re hoping to put a copter over in the Saginaw area,” Bush said. “Eventually we’d like to put one in Detroit full time, and as we build up our resources the way we had them in the ‘80s, we’d like to position them in Northern Michigan and even the UP.”
The team also has been doing a lot of work lately helping the Department of Natural Resources with wildlife counts in the UP and Northern Lower Peninsula.
It’s all in a day’s work for the officers, according to Bush.
“The one thing we do need is more pilots, but everyone needs more people at work, right?” Bush said.
“Since coming to this unit, I’ve seen these guys work their butts off. They respond 24/7. If someone’s missing in the night, they don’t even question it – they’re going.
“I’ve been on a lot of those searches and I always thought that they treat all these missing people and others as if they were some of our own family members,” he said.
The team’s chief pilot, Lt. Pat Lawrence, said, “It is a great feeling when you can help someone find their loved one, whether it be a child or a missing elderly person.
“Our main mission is to save lives and offer assistance to the officers on the streets that put their lives on the line every day. If we can thwart one act of violence against those officers on the street, then we have done our job.”