CHANDLER, ARIZ. - It's 7 a.m. and creeping toward 100 degrees when four Toledo police officers arrive at the municipal airport here for more than eight hours of helicopter pilot training.
With mountains and cacti dotting the arid landscape, Officer Jeff Violanti spends about 30 minutes reviewing preflight checklists, looking for damage and leaks on hundreds of parts on the two-seat Robinson R22 and ensuring the fuel is clean. He cleans the windshield, shaped like giant fly eyes, as he has done twice daily for the last two months.
He and the other officers are here training to become members of Toledo's first police helicopter unit. Police Chief Mike Navarre proposed the unit last year to oversee chases and for surveillance, search and rescue, night patrols, and other emergency situations.
This morning, Officer Violanti is preparing for a couple of hours of flight training with Lt. Leo Eggert.
During the flight, Officer Violanti's colleagues, Officers Gary Bunting and Bruce Helppie, await their flight trips inside the Quantum Helicopters school building, cramming their brains with information from more than a half-dozen books about Federal Aviation Administration rules, weather, navigation, charts and logs, flight maneuvers, airspace, and helicopter operations.
“This is hard. Everything is difficult to do,” said Officer Violanti, 36. “I've been in the Marine Corps and have been through boot camp. This is more mental, but it's just as stressful. You go back to your room exhausted.”
Fly, study, eat, sleep - that's been their routine since driving 1,880 miles here from Toledo in April to learn how to pilot the new Robinson R44 helicopter the city plans to buy for about $504,000.
The officers and their commander have learned how to coordinate their hands, feet, and eyes to fly the R22, a smaller version of the four-seat R44 that Toledo police will fly. Instructors said training is done in the R22 because it is more difficult to fly than its bigger sibling.
Officers Helppie and Violanti have earned private pilot's licenses to fly rotorcraft helicopters since coming here. Officer Bunting, 45, who has had a commercial pilot's license to fly an airplane since 1983, achieved a private pilot rotorcraft helicopter rating, which means he now can fly a helicopter. He also is studying to become an advanced ground instructor.
The officers each have at least 90 hours of flight time, including night flying, five hours of solo flying, and a cross-country flight that includes more than 100 miles and several landings. Each has received more than 60 hours of ground training and has spent up to five hours nightly plus weekends studying for required oral and written tests. Now they are flying on weekends.
Officers Helppie and Violanti are studying for the written test portion of their commercial license, which requires a minimum of 150 flight hours and more expertise in autorotations - emergency landings without the engine running. They also must know how to perform pinnacle and confined-space landings and instrument and cross-country flying.
Lieutenant Eggert, 44, was licensed to fly and provide instruction in airplanes before coming to Chandler, a city of nearly 200,000 nestled 19 miles southeast of Phoenix. He has flown more than 200 hours here since mid-March, earning ratings that allow him to pilot a rotorcraft helicopter and teach students, including his officers, how to fly.
Like all new students, flight instructors said, the Toledo officers scared them several times during flight training. Stomachs turned when they were practicing how to make the helicopter hover in the air before taxiing to the heliport and how to move the T-shaped cyclic, or steering wheel, so the chopper doesn't quickly rise or plunge hundreds of feet.
“Sometimes it feels as if [the instructor is] the only one looking,” said Feyd Carroll, Officer Bunting's instructor. “The nervousness and tension, it's so hard [for the trainees]. It's a very, very new experience.”
Officers Bunting and Helppie said learning to fly was the hardest concept, more difficult than studying the books and taking the tests. Officer Violanti said he had a tough time learning to read the navigation charts. Flying straight was the easiest part for him.
“It hasn't been a bowl of cherries. It's been hard,” said Officer Helppie, 46.
The officers have been living in efficiency rooms at a motel with no pool and few other amenities. The city is paying about $210 a week per room and about $25 a day for each officer's meals. Travel expenses, lodging, and food are estimated at about $25,000. The training costs an estimated $125,000.
The officers have not seen their children since they left Toledo. Most of their wives have made short visits.
“I study 15 to 16 hours on the weekends. I have no family or friends here. I had my first beer in almost two months when I completed my check ride June 1,” Officer Bunting said.
The Toledo officers had to band together when their colleague, Officer Ken Potter, experienced difficulty learning maneuvers and fell behind. He returned to Toledo a few weeks ago. He will not be a part of the unit at this time and returned to his position with the police tactical entry team.
“It's a lot of coordination. Every facet of your body is working together as one to counteract the things that are happening,” Officer Potter, 44, said of his experience. “I'm left-handed, and the main controls are controlled with the right hand. I got behind. I felt I could fly the aircraft, but the program had a certain time [limit], and I understood that.”
Chief Navarre experienced first-hand how difficult it is to fly a chopper when he recently visited the officers during training.
“It's like playing four musical instruments at the same time,” the chief said.
The officers have learned how to bank right and left in the door-less helicopter while hovering hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet up. They've become accustomed to the wind hitting their arms and the seats vibrating in the small of their backs.
Gliding past the San Tan Mountains and above the Gila River Indian reservation at about 60 mph, the officers listen and talk to air-traffic controllers through their headsets while watching instruments and gauges and working two pedals with their feet and a throttle and the cyclic with their hands.
Missy Palrang, Quantum Helicopters' chief flight instructor, who reviews the officers' log books and conducts their regular stage checks after they complete each section of their training syllabus, said the Toledo officers have been under a lot of stress.
“They had to get it done in a short period of time, because somebody was paying for them. With that outside pressure and the inside pressure of studying, they really did a good job under those circumstances,” she said.
Last week the officers attended a safety course at the Robinson Helicopter Company factory in Torrance, Calif. This week they return to Chandler to make the transition from the R22 to the larger R44, and will spend about five hours each flying with an instructor. The transition should be easy because the larger chopper will be easier to fly than its smaller counterpart, said Neil Jones, owner of Quantum Helicopters and a helicopter pilot for nearly 20 years.
The officers will return to Toledo by July 1, then take some time off. The department's chopper - loaded with police equipment, including a searchlight and an infrared camera system for nighttime patrolling - is expected to arrive in August.
Chief Navarre is investigating the possibility of leasing an R22 as well so the pilots don't use the city-owned helicopter to do advanced training maneuvers.
The officers will not be able to fly the R44 by themselves until they complete 200 flight hours and a final check ride with Lieutenant Eggert. However, they will be patrolling and receiving training in the R44 with the lieutenant and two Life Flight pilots.
Life Flight, an air ambulance service operated by St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center and Medical College of Ohio Hospitals, will provide free maintenance labor, hangar and office space, and remedial training for the first 18 months the police department has the chopper. If the arrangement works, the offer could be extended. Life Flight is sending one of its mechanics to a Robinson maintenance program to learn how to service the R44 helicopter because it is different than the Dauphine model Eurocopters the air ambulance service uses, which are faster, twin-engine turbines.
The public-use loophole also applies to pilots. Technically, the helicopter pilots aren't required to have licenses. But no law enforcement agency in the country would allow officers to fly a chopper without earning private and commercial licenses, Mr. Jones said.
That's why Officer Bunting is practicing landings on a heliport atop a parking garage in Mesa and Officer Helppie is trying to improve the helicopter's hovering during starts and stops.
That's why Officer Violanti is taking night flights, landing at the airport heliport about 11:30 p.m.
Even after long days with breathtaking sunsets, Officer Violanti remembers to review his post-flight checklist amid the loud hum of the slowing rotor blades.
He unbuckles himself and steps onto the ground where it is still about 80 degrees. It's off to the motel and to bed, only to be back up at 7 a.m.
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