Monday, August 1, 2005
Letters to the Pylet
By Sgt. Ernie Stephens
THAT'S RIGHT, "PYLET." AT LEAST that's the way a local fourth-grade student spelled it in one of the hundreds of letters I found while digging through the firetrap that is my desk.
Every year right around spring time, my unit receives a flurry of requests to bring the helicopter to area schools for career day. Occasionally, we'll get a stack of "thanks for coming" letters from the children, which my conscience won't let me throw out (at least not immediately.) I had a fresh batch in my hand the other day, and kicked back behind my desk to read them.
All of the letters were written using the obligatory Number Two pencil and lined notebook paper. Many were decorated with elaborate drawings of helicopters and stick-figure crewmembers. All were nice, but a handful stood out from the bunch.
Ashley, a seventh-grader, wrote, "Thank you for coming to our classroom. Another thing I want to thank you for is telling us how to operate an airplane and helicopter, because in case of emergency, when we're on either one, we might need to know to fly it, so we can have a safe landing."
Frederick, also a seventh-grader, was very thoughtful about his aviation options. "You really inspired me and I would like to grow up and fly airplanes, just in case my basketball career doesn't work out."
A letter sent by Rodnika closed with, "I was so excited because I wanted to know about flying so bad. So that is why I wanted to write you to say thank you. P.S. - I am the one who said I was scared to fly."
LaShana's comments made me feel very good. "What I like best between a helicopter and a airplane is a helicopter, cause you can land anywhere," she wrote. "If it wasn't for you I wouldn't know nothing." (Politicians will just love her when she turns voting age!)
Darrin must have picked up on something that the other fourth-graders didn't. "I learned not to get close to a helicopter when it takes off," he wrote. "Also, I learned that parts of the helicopter can catch fire."
He may have a bright future working for the National Transportation Safety Board!
Then there was young Ferris, a junior high school kid who wrote, "I really learned a lot. Next time I go to an air show, I'll be teaching the pilots a thing or two." I'm betting that this kid's first job will be with the FAA.
Rhonda's letter hinted of inner turmoil. "I always wanted to be a flight attendant, but I am scared to go up in the sky," the seventh-grader wrote. "But thanks to you I might try." She underlined the word "might."
Of course, such moving observations don't just come by way of pencil and paper. There isn't a pilot on this planet who hasn't had a child come up to him or her and say something that caught them completely off guard.
Almost every child asks what the thing is that sticks out of the front of the helicopter. "That's called the pitot tube," I said to a little boy and his preschool-age brother.
"It looks like a machine gun to me," replied the older of the two.
"It's a pitot tube," I patiently insisted. "It makes the airspeed indicator work."
As the two young boys headed for the Moon Bounce, I over heard the big one say to his sibling, "He didn't fool me. It's a machine gun. I saw the trigger on the stick inside." (At least he didn't ask me to stick my hand up into a set of spinning main rotor blades... or "fan," as the kids call it... to prove they would chop it off. That's another popular request from the kiddies I'm paid to protect.)
My agency operates the MD-520N airframe. For simplicity, we mount our forward-looking infrared (flir) ball on a side platform. With the lenses in the stowed position, it's hard for the casual observer to figure out what the smooth, round ball is. Not so with children! They know exactly what it is. It's a bomb. (Actually, we could stand to have one of those.)
One wide-eyed little girl, who looked like she hadn't been on this earth much longer than the ice cream cone she was holding, pointed to the flir ball and said, "Mister? You shouldn't carry your bowling ball on the outside of the airplane! It could fall and hurt somebody!"
Like most agencies, we have an impressive array of electronic gear on board the helicopter. One of the attention getters is the LoJack receiver. A very inquisitive preteen gave it a close look, wrinkled his face, and said, "You've got LoJack?! You mean you're worried about people stealing a police helicopter?!" As the pilot of a helicopter without a tail rotor, I couldn't resist hitting that ball right out of the park. "Why not?" I said in a very serious voice. "They already stole our tail rotor."
After all is said and done, we as law enforcement aviators get a lot of mileage out of taking our aircraft to schools, neighborhood events and anything else the public invites us to. They get to see us up close and personal, and learn about our contributions to public safety. They find out that we don't just chase fleeing felons, but we search for Alzheimer's patients. They learn that we don't just turn on that big light, but we can use the flir to see in the dark.
The big payoff is gaining citizen support, which is handy if an uninformed politician threatens to shutdown the helicopter unit as a cost-saving measure. But I think there is also a payoff with the kids. It can be summed up by the last line in a letter from 12-year-old Alicia. "At first I didn't really care too much about helicopters and planes," she wrote. "Maybe one day I'll become a pilot."