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Choppers: Airborne answer to crime on ground

With infrared camera and piercing spotlight, the Hernando Sheriff's Office choppers provide backup when deputies on the ground need help.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

Eight hundred feet above Hernando County, Mike Coburn and B.J. Hart blaze across the night sky doing 130 mph, their helicopter shimmying slightly in a crosswind.

[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
The McDonnel Douglas 520N, the newer and faster of the Hernando Sheriff's Office's two helicopters, flies five nights a week and sometimes on daylight missions.

They cover the distance from U.S. 19 to Interstate 75 in less than nine minutes and lament that wind kept the trip from being shorter. Still, this patrol -- on a recent Friday night -- is off to a quiet start for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office aviation unit.

A brief, fruitless search for a stolen car on U.S. 19; a flyover that sent a group of partiers scurrying from a bonfire they had set on private property.

Yet, before their night is done, Coburn and Hart eventually will track down and lead deputies on the ground to a woman who had ventured into the wilderness with suicide on her mind -- a woman who was found on this dark, misty night by the helicopter's special heat-detecting infrared eye.

Despite a colorful history, the sheriff's aviation unit is relatively obscure.

Most Hernando County residents know it only by the brief roar of helicopter engines heard occasionally overhead. Unless the noise lingers -- a sure sign the aviation unit is backing up a ground deputy working an incident below -- most people don't give the choppers a second thought.

Yet the Sheriff's Office swears by its air patrol.

"They come in handy from car chases to burglaries to missing persons," said Hal Enders, a patrol deputy who works the roads at night.

Deputy's death demonstrated a need

In a county that had long tried to deny the encroachment of big-city dangers, it was a tragedy that occurred 25 years ago last week that finally propelled the Hernando County Sheriff's Office into the skies.

On Feb. 21, 1978, Deputy Lonnie Coburn -- Mike Coburn's cousin -- was working in Ridge Manor when he heard about a robbery in progress at a nearby convenience store. He rushed over and stopped two men. He radioed Tom Nowlin and asked for backup. But, with the force much smaller then, Nowlin had to come all the way from Spring Lake.

By the time he arrived, the men had turned on Coburn, wrestled a gun from him and shot him in the chest. Coburn died a few hours later. The killers were tracked down later that night in a Pasco swamp. Hernando Sheriff Melvin Kelly said they might never have been found had it not been for a police helicopter -- one dispatched from Orlando.

Nowlin, who leads the sheriff's aviation unit today, says things might have been different for his friend had a helicopter been hovering overhead that night.

Others felt the same. "Lonnie Coburn's death was kind of the wake-up call that things happen here like everywhere else," said recently retired Sheriff Tom Mylander, who in 1978 was the detective who investigated Coburn's death.

Within months, the Hernando Sheriff's Office purchased its first helicopter. And it did it, ironically, with money from the sale of a drug plane deputies had seized months earlier at the Hernando County Airport -- a bust instigated by Lonnie Coburn himself.

Mylander, who had flown police helicopters in Pinellas County, became the Hernando aviation unit's first pilot. He nurtured the air unit until his retirement in 2000.

Over the years, the aviation unit has seen its share of action.

For Nowlin, the most harrowing day came in 1998 when Hank Earl Carr, who had just shot two Tampa detectives and a state trooper, brought his murderous rampage to Hernando County..

As Nowlin's chopper approached I-75, he could see the exchange of gunfire between Carr and a Pasco County deputy. Briefly, Nowlin made eye contact with Carr. Then he watched as Carr pointed a gun skyward and fired two shots. One missed altogether. The other came through the floor of the helicopter, missed Nowlin's shin by inches and exited the roof.

"At that point, (Carr) was trying to wreck everything in his path," Nowlin said. "It made me angry. I saw what he was doing."

Wisely, Nowlin pulled his chopper over to the passenger side of Carr's truck. He followed it until Carr stopped at a Ridge Manor West service station, where Carr would eventually commit suicide.

For Sheriff Richard Nugent, his most memorable helicopter account is about the search for two men who had raped and murdered a convenience store clerk in Spring Hill. They were found -- by a helicopter pilot -- trying to dislodge their truck from the muck in some thick woods west of U.S. 19. Consensus around the department is that ground deputies would never have seen them.

For Hart, the infrared camera observer, there was the time an Alzheimer's patient wandered into wilderness on a bitterly cold night. Hart spotted him with the camera. He still has a note from the man's family thanking him for saving their father from freezing to death.

And there are other highlights: rescues of injured boaters stranded on coastal islands; the recovery of hikers lost in state forests.

Spring Hill Fire Rescue Chief J.J. Morrison says there are times when his men are fighting brushfires that, literally, they cannot see the forest for the trees. The sheriff's aviation unit can tell firefighters where the fires are headed or drop water on flames that are out of the reach of fire trucks. "I can't put a dollar figure on that resource," Morrison said.

On the scene in minutes

Hernando Sheriff's Office pilot P.C. "Bubba" Thompson mounts the infrared camera.
The sheriff's aviation unit -- composed of two helicopters that rotate duty -- took to the air 615 times last year. Nearly two-thirds of the trips were at night, when the unit makes routine patrols and backs up road deputies.

The bulk of the action takes place on the county's west side. Once airborne, the helicopters can get to most calls within three minutes. But such swiftness doesn't come cheap.

Last year, the Sheriff's Office spent nearly $489,000 on its air unit -- about 2 1/2 percent of the department's budget. That included salaries for three pilots, a mechanic and an observer assigned to the unit.

Pasco County, which has three helicopters and two airplanes, spends $365,000 a year and gets pilots in the air seven nights a week. Hernando has air coverage on just five nights.

Citrus County, with three helicopters and an airplane, spends $370,000. Its unit is in the air six nights a week.

A few anomalies may account for Hernando's bigger aviation budget last year. An engine failure in one of the helicopters required a $70,000-plus repair job. And a routine five-year replacement of rotor blades in the same helicopter cost another $50,000.

The helicopter in question, the NOTAR helicopter, is the star of sheriff's aviation unit and an aircraft unlike any in the neighboring counties' arsenals.

The NOTAR, which stands for "no tail rudder," can carry four people and operate in winds up to 60 mph, which is important if it is needed for storm rescues.

By contrast, the unit's older Hughes OH6 is slower, can carry just two people and is capable of flying in winds of up to just 30 mph. Such aircraft were grounded during the no-name storm of March 1993, when Coast Guard choppers were rescuing people from their roofs along the coast.

Because of its stronger engine and greater lift capabilities, the NOTAR can be quickly converted into a medical evacuation helicopter by removing its back seat. It can lift injured people in a basket. It can serve as a platform to lower rappelling officers onto rooftops. And it can carry 800 pounds of water to fire drops, refill in any handy body of water, and go again.

All told, the Sheriff's Office spent $980,000 to buy and outfit the NOTAR in 1994. By contrast the older OH6, acquired through something of a government giveaway program, cost about $7,500 to buy and outfit.

"It's more expensive," sheriff's spokesman Lt. Joe Paez said of the NOTAR. "But it gives us so much greater versatility."

For either of the unit's helicopters, the key to night operations is the forward-looking infrared camera, or FLIR. The rotating eye, about the size of a bowling ball, can be mounted on the belly of either helicopter.

It cannot see through walls or even closed car windows, and it is useless in daylight. But, at night, the FLIR camera is sensitive enough to discern variations in heat as small as two-tenths of a degree. And it can do so from 1,000 feet off the ground, a half-mile away.

In the cockpit, Hart peers at a video screen that displays images of light in 240 different shades. Cold items are the darkest. Hot items the brightest.

People look like neatly defined ghosts. Cars engines appear radioactive. Fresh cow patties glow like hot steel. And when fleeing bad guys fall down, they leave a pale white stain -- a bit of their body heat -- on the ground.

Such capabilities take most of the suspense out of foot pursuits and car chases. Once the helicopter arrives, the bad guys really don't stand a chance.

Before the infrared camera, searches at night meant that deputies walked blindly into thickets. Bad guys, some with guns, could lie shielded in darkness as deputies approached waving a flashlight.

Now, with the helicopter's infrared camera scanning the area, the aviation unit can watch the bad guys' every movement and guide deputies around such dangers.

Sometimes, the mere noise of the helicopter is an intimidating factor.

When Coburn and Hart recently pulled up above the bonfire north of Oak Hill Hospital, the little glowing people on Hart's infrared screen began to scramble. One went for a bucket of water to douse the fire. Others piled into their cars and made a beeline for the exit road. Within five minutes, the trespassers were dispersed. Mischief was averted. And road deputies never had to enter the fray. Cops call it a "force multiplier."

If noise isn't enough, the helicopters each have a 15-million-candlepower spotlight that pierces the night like the glory of God. It is such a bright light that it will set grass afire if activated while the chopper is on the ground. Once, a mechanic walked through the light beam and felt the leg of his jeans melt.

Simply put, people up to no good tend to freeze once caught in the light's tractor beam. Those that want a workout can keep running. But eventually they get hemmed in by a web of deputies responding to the play calls from their quarterback in the sky.

At a time when the sheriff's budget is coming under scrutiny for consuming an increasingly large part of the county tax pie, deputies shun notions that their aviation unit is a luxury.

Mike Coburn, who was selling furniture in Brooksville when his cousin became the last Hernando deputy to die on duty, says he is proud to fulfill a dream that Lonnie Coburn shared -- to fly for the sheriff's aviation unit.

For all the unit's success stories, Coburn says there still is no accurate way to count how many times the helicopters have changed the mind of a bad guy thinking of turning on a deputy the way two robbers turned on Lonnie Coburn 25 years ago.

"How do you put a price on life?" Coburn said.

-- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to .

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