A 911 dispatcher reports that a woman is holding a knife to her sister’s throat at a Mesa apartment complex. Hearing the call, Mesa police officers Dave Mellinger and Chuck Pradelt swing their helicopter around, banking at about 45 degrees through the night and then reaching their destination in seconds.
They circle tightly at 500 feet, shining their spotlight on two women who appear to be getting along. After a few minutes of lighting the scene so officers on the ground can gain control of the situation, they fly on to the next call.
Mellinger said pursuits are the staple of the Mesa Aviation Unit, but it’s also there to help officers on the ground in a number of ways — from describing an incident as it unfolds to searching for missing people and scouting for burglaries in progress.
“We get the big picture, and we’re usually first on scene,” Mellinger said.
The police department wants to expand the unit by adding a helicopter to its fleet of three choppers and one airplane, said Steve Raether, the unit’s chief pilot and one of its founding fathers.
The department would pay for it with money seized from drug deals.
The new chopper would ease the workload on the current fleet, which flies an average of 3,600 hours a year, or almost 10 hours a day, Raether said.
By comparison, Phoenix has eight choppers and flies about 8,000 hours a year while the Department of Public Safety has five helicopters and flew 2,556 hours in the last fiscal year.
Mesa police also want to enter into mutual aid agreements with East Valley cities that don’t have air units.
Raether said the Mesa choppers currently respond to calls from other departments with the approval of a Mesa field lieutenant.
“We do that with all our neighboring agencies without charge,” Raether said.
The lieutenants don’t always approve the assistance if Mesa is busy, however.
The mutual aid agreement, which would require the other departments to pay for the service, would guarantee air support.
“We know there’s interest from other agencies,” Raether said. “The question is do they want to budget the money.”
Mesa’s air unit developed from an abandoned airplane filled with bales of marijuana that a Mesa officer discovered parked at Falcon Field around 1984. Mesa seized it and traded for the Cessna 172 that is still used today for surveillance and transporting detectives long distances.
The department persuaded the City Council in 1993 to lease two helicopters, McDonnell Douglas 500E models, which were eventually purchased and are still in service.
“It was like, ‘What did we ever do without these?’ ” Raether said.
The unit added its third chopper in 2003.
A helicopter in a big city is invaluable, said Mellinger, one of Mesa’s nine pilots.
“We can cover a lot of ground quickly,” he said.
Being an urban police flight crew, Mesa’s mission differs from other agencies that also have aviation units.
Mesa’s flight unit mostly patrols, and its two-man crews have wide discretion in responding to calls.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has three helicopters and two airplanes, with each helicopter used for specific tasks, according to Capt. Paul Chagolla, sheriff’s spokesman.
One helicopter is mostly for search and rescue, as well as SWAT operations and rescuing motorists stuck in flooded washes. Another helps ground patrol, while the third is used as a trainer.
The two airplanes are for surveillance and transporting extradited defendants to jail.
Helicopters from the Arizona Department of Public Safety are strategically placed around the state for medical emergency services, technical rescues, disaster evacuation, search and rescue, and helping ground patrols from DPS and other agencies, said Richard Thacher, who leads the aviation bureau.
Four airplanes are used for such tasks as transporting the governor, statewide response of SWAT units, the bomb squad and negotiators. They are also used to patrol in remote and rural areas, speed and special traffic enforcement, and surveillance, Thacher said.
The Mesa flight unit isn’t limited to patrolling, however, as pilots are also trained in technical and mountain rescues and often work with the fire department.
The unit also has a “Bambi bucket,” a suspended bucket used for dropping water on brush fires.