Should Pilots Fear the Police?

The saga of a South Carolina glider pilot arrested for overflying a nuclear powerplant recalls another episode in which police overreacted when a pilot did nothing wrong.

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The plight of the glider pilot who was arrested for overflying a nuclear powerplant in violation of zero federal or local laws reminds me of another instance in which overzealous police overstepped their bounds after a pilot did exactly what he was supposed to be doing.

It happened on New Year’s Eve in 2003. My dad, Bill Pope, a medevac helicopter pilot for the Westchester County Medical Center outside New York City, had gotten the call to pick up a critically ill newborn from Stamford Hospital in Connecticut. Along with a flight nurse and paramedic, he boarded his BK117 and took off into the dark for the short flight across the state border.

The helicopter was met at the hospital's helipad by the newborn’s doctor, who ushered the flight nurse and paramedic inside to prepare the patient for transport. My dad waited outside by the helicopter with the rear clamshell doors open, ready to accept the newborn as soon as she was brought out.

Within minutes of their arrival, a fire truck with its lights on drove up to the hospital followed by a police car and then another and another. The firefighters and police officers said they had seen the helicopter land and had come to find out what was going on. They started making small talk, asking friendly questions about the helicopter and the job. One of the firefighters asked what the qualifications were to become a flight paramedic.

As my dad chatted with the group, one police officer hung back by his squad car, talking on his radio. After a few minutes, he walked up with his ticket book in hand and some bad news.

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but I’m going to have to issue you a summons.”

“Really? For what?” my dad asked.

Landing or taking off in a helicopter within the Stamford city limits is prohibited, the patrolman explained. It was a new ordinance, passed by the city council presumably to prevent rich CEOs from traveling by helicopter from their mansions to their offices in Manhattan. Clearly medevac helicopters weren’t supposed to be caught up in the ordinance, especially after 9/11, but the law was the law. The officer wrote the ticket and handed it to my dad. The fine, if he was convicted, reached into the thousands of dollars.

Obviously the first thing my dad did was contact his company, which quickly got their lawyers involved with the threat of lawsuits against the town and the police department. The media caught onto the story as well. I can still remember the 11 o’clock news in New York a few nights later teasing the story this way: “A hero medevac helicopter pilot tries to save the life of a little baby. You’re not going to believe what happened next. That story, coming up on the Channel 2 News.”

When the story blew up in the local papers, town officials quickly amended the law to expressly permit takeoffs and landings by emergency medical helicopters. The charge was dropped and a public apology issued. My dad got a phone call a few days later from a higher up at the Stamford Police Department, who also apologized for the episode and blamed it on an overzealous desk sergeant on duty that night.

Thankfully for the sick baby, who I hear is doing just fine a decade after her trip by helicopter to Westchester's NICU, the police didn’t arrest my dad that New Year’s Eve night or prevent him from taking off. But they could have. And my dad actually has some pull with the police. Before he hung up his Lt. Col.'s silver oak leaf insignia for good, he was Provost Marshal of the New Jersey National Guard, the top police official in the state under certain circumstances. If he couldn’t get out of a bad situation with the cops as a pilot, do you think you or I could?

I sure don't want to find out.