(George Tonkin) – Almost simultaneously, both Gareth Pahl (one of my regular crewmen)
and I received the message notification on our phones while flying a
routine VISPOL (Visual Policing) sortie somewhere over Pretoria East:
“Armed robbery in progress. Wonderboom area.”
LOOKING FROM THE OUTSIDE IN, being a helicopter pilot can seem like the ultimate profession. You imagine yourself cruising through valleys like a ready-for-anything Airwolf-piloting hero. Or performing white-knuckle ship resupplies in the frigid South Atlantic, search and rescues in the Drakensberg mountains, or swooping from out of the sun to thwart criminals and save the day.
Sure, some pilots get to do that, but in reality, a lot of the time piloting a helicopter commercially can feel like driving a bus or a taxi. Pick up clients here; drop them off there. Repeat. You’re a commodity with a schedule.
Nothing like what I imagined when I was little, staring up at the clouds as an aircraft flew over: envy, enchantment and longing etched on my face. So besotted was I that once I fell into the swimming pool as I leaned over to try to see the jet shrieking over my house, around the hill from Waterkloof Air Force Base.
The sign outside the base read something along the lines of, “Thundering jets! The sound of freedom!” I wanted that freedom. In flight training school, they teach you both the basics andnuances of flying. Like, how to fly with your head, how to plan and to assess – basically to keep you not only flying but, more importantly, alive.
Interestingly enough, how well you internalised all these lessons, becomes evident not only in the spur of the moment events (like the onementioned above) but also in the more mundane, mind-numbing flying days. Because complacency can be a killer, both figuratively and literally. I mean, it’s true right? Life is not an adventure every day. But what you make of the prosaic days can prepare you for the adventurous ones.
It took me a while to figure that out: to learn to keep myself motivated behind the piles of paperwork, and through the seasons as a taxi driver in the sky. To learn to look into the cockpit of my fellow working pilots, to peer in to see how they manage their skill and graft; what makes them the best in their craft.
I figured I could even learn from my passengers and crew, many of whom have become friends as a result. Like any other industry, security has its long, uneventful days too, the kind where you just don’t know whether you are having any effect on seemingly soaring crime. But criminals, unlike you and I, don’t take holidays. They also have bills and bosses, rent to pay and mouths to feed. Except, when it comes to the holidays, I imagine that they probably also celebrate Christmas, with gifts and big dinners, like most of us. The money has to come from somewhere! (Like cash in transit vans, ATMs or Santa’s parcel-packed courier trucks.)
Typically, then, with much more cash floating about, the festive season sees a spike in criminal activity, from a few weeks preceding it. Every year we plan to counter this by heightening our security presence, including in the air. Many more sorties are flown, from before dawn and well into the evening. Long days filled with many tedious hours of flying.
But without those hours we wouldn’t find ourselves in the right place at the right time, like on that Wednesday one December when Gareth and I received the text alerting us to the active armed robbery in our “hood”. Gareth, both a tactical operator and a paramedic, is a rare breed. “He can stop them and start them,” we always joke.
He’s also not the largest man around, which is particularly helpful when it comes to crewing in a Robbie 44, where lighter weight means better performance and, more importantly, improved fuel usage, allowing for a longer flight window. Gareth is also what we call a “networker”. And due to his well developed network, he is able to work across many private security companies and law enforcement agencies, with trust built up over many years.
“Ba-bing,” chimed the message. No words were needed as we glanced at each other. I pulled in all 22 inches on the manifold with the collective, and leaned forward in the cockpit, straining forward to edge the Raven ever faster.
After what seemed an eternity, but which was in reality only five minutes, we arrived on the scene. From our elevated position we watched as one of the gun-wielding robbers fled into the Montana Hospital on foot.
Thinking quickly, I made for the hospital landing pad, almost directly below me. “Gareth, I’m gonna put you down!” I shouted excitedly, while checking wind, Ts and Ps.
“Gareth re-emerged with the perpetrator in a neck-lock“
Gareth, Glock in hand, was out of the door as we touched down. I lifted off immediately, as dumbstruck aunties, meds in hand, fresh from the pharmacy, watched in amazement as the cops and robbers movie played out around them. I checked the perimeter from above as Gareth sprinted into the main entrance. Not two minutes later Gareth re-emerged, the perpetrator (who was protesting his innocence, and claiming to be a patient) in a neck-lock. After a search by the police, a gun, which was later matched to the robber, was found under the stairs in the foyer where he had tossed it.
For the rest of the day, it was hard to go back to simply patrolling the skies, to just being a visual policing presence, hopefully keeping potential criminals in check.
The reality in our line of work is that there are times of “high-fives” to celebrate victories. But not many.
It’s these “one Wednesday-in-December” moments that make the mundane hours so worthwhile. On these days I feel like a child again, when I get to
excitedly tell everyone, “Guess what? My buddie
Gareth and I caught a baddie!”