Law Enforcement Notebook: The Tough Choices

By Ernie Stephens | March 1, 2016


It’s snowing where I am tonight. This reminds me of a snowstorm many years ago on Jan. 13, 1982.

I wasn’t a pilot yet. In fact, I was so new, if there were a coffee run that had to be made for the sergeants back at the station, it was I who got stuck with it.

But that evening, I was on the road policing in a bone-chilling kind of cold that finds its way through your uniform like a knife. The snow and wind didn’t help.


Just 10 mi away from where I sat shivering in my 1978 Chevy Nova police car, an Air Florida Boeing 737 with 79 souls onboard was struggling to climb out of Washington National Airport. With ice on its wings, Flight 90 wasn’t able to do that. It dipped toward the 14th Street Bridge, which was choked with early-afternoon rush-hour traffic leaving the District of Columbia for Arlington, Virginia. The blue, green and white airliner clipped a portion of the bridge’s north span, killing four people and injuring four more in cars on it before plunging into the icy Potomac River.

Three miles away, U.S. Park Police Officers John Usher and Gene Windsor were at their hangar absorbing news about the crash and the prospect that dozens of people were about to die if they weren’t pulled swiftly from the river. Minutes later, pilot Usher and rescue technician Windsor were airborne in their Bell Helicopter 206L, feeling their way through low visibility and ceilings that barely cleared power lines above the streets they had to follow to find the crash site.

Eagle-1 had no hoist back then, so Usher had to hover just feet above the Potomac as Windsor stood on the skids lowering flotation devices to the handful of people visible amid the wreckage and ice. Those who had the strength to hang on were carefully towed to the shore, but Windsor had to reach down and grab one woman who was too frozen to cling to a line.

Of the plane’s passengers and crew, just five survived. Usher and Windsor saved four of them.

How many times do police aviators—military and search and rescue ones, too—push back against the voices of their primary flight instructors and the warnings in the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual that tell them not to fly when the ceilings are like this, or the visibility is like that and the fuel state is such and such? We all know that it’s wise counsel and that ignoring such guidance often leads to the loss of ships and crews.

We also know that nobody will beat us up if we exercise our right to reject a mission when the risks are too high. “When it comes to flying this aircraft, there’s God and then there’s me,” I used to tell one particular lieutenant who was a bit too thickheaded to grasp the whole pilot-in-command concept.

Police, military and SAR aviation is often about taking an aircraft into harm’s way. Yes, we sometimes let emotions get the better of us and miscalculate which missions to fly and from which to walk away. This is why it’s always wise to give the non-piloting crewmembers a say in the decision-making process. But right or wrong, I think we all still push the limits of acceptable risk a bit farther when life-and-death decisions arise. We’re paid to stick our necks out a bit farther than the corporate driver. Hell, it’s probably in our DNA.

Chances are that as I’m writing this, somewhere in the world there is a law enforcement helicopter crew trying to decide if they should pass on an “officer down” call because the weather is just barely below minimums or if they should push their fuel so they can spend another two min searching that last corner of the park for a missing 2-year-old. As they’re making that decision, they will be aware that lives—including their own—may hang in the balance.

In one of my favorite movies, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” the closing scene showed the commander of a task force sitting on an aircraft carrier’s bridge while pondering the loss of a pilot who was like a son to him. Most of what he said applies to naval aviators, whom he rightfully praised for their skill and bravery in flying missions from a ship’s deck. But his final line echoed something that applies to police and SAR pilots, too, especially to officers Usher and Windsor. He asked, “Where do we get such men?” I’m going to edit that just a little by adding, “...and women.”

May all of your tough choices be the right ones, just like Usher’s and Windsor’s.


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