Archive for July, 2009

Infamous flights

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Just recently (July 23, 2009) a couple booked a sightseeing tour of the Bruges region of Belgium. In flight, one of the passengers pressed a gun to the pilot’s temple. He then took away the pilot’s headset and ordered him to land at a nearby prison. Once on the ground, three inmates climbed on board the helicopter. Forcing the pilot to land near Bruges, the escapees carjacked a vehicle and drove away. They remain at large.

Using a helicopter to escape from prison is nothing new. The first known case happened on August 19, 1971, in Santa Martha Acatitla, Mexico. New York businessman Joel David Kaplan was convicted of killing his business partner, Louis Vidal Jr., in Mexico City. Catching the guards by complete surprise, a helicopter landed in the prison yard where he and fellow inmate Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, a Venezuelan counterfeiter, escaped prison and the country of Mexico.

Kaplan maintained his claim of innocence. Whether he killed his business partner or not is hard to know as much controversy and unanswered questions surrounded his trial. He went on to write a book about his experience, The 10-Second Jailbreak. The 1975 action film Breakout starring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and Robert Duvall was based on his escape.

Since then, prison escapes by helicopter have become quite popular, especially in Europe. Worldwide since 1971 there has been 24 attempts (5 in the U.S.) to break out of prison using a helicopter. Of those, 19 were successful; however, most were recaptured sometime later. In 23 of these the prisoner(s) attempted to escape by getting onboard the aircraft. In the other one, guns and bulletproof vests were dropped to inmates who were then able to take three guards hostage. Twenty-four hours later they surrendered.

The most common method of acquiring a helicopter for a jailbreak is having an accomplice highjack one with a professional pilot. However, that’s not always the case.

In France a woman known by the flight school as Lena Rigon started taking helicopter flight lessons. Many at the flight school admired her for her strong dedication while also raising two kids without a father. However, that opinion changed when they learned that she was in fact Nadine Vaujour, wife of one of France’s most guarded prisoners, Michel Vaujour, who was in incarcerated for attempted murder and armed robbery.

On May 26, 1986, Vaujour made his way to the prison roof by threatening guards with a fake pistol and nectarines painted as grenades. Once on the roof, his new helicopter pilot wife picked him up. They landed at a nearby soccer field and fled using a waiting car. Later that year Nadine was found hiding at a villa in southwestern France and arrested. Shortly after her arrest, Michel was shot in the head and lapsed into a coma during a failed bank robbery.

Another inmate from France holds the record for planning the highest number of escapes by helicopter. Pascal Payet gained notoriety in 2001 for using a helicopter to escape from Luynes prison in southern France. Then in 2003, while still on the run, he organized another escape for fellow inmates from the same Luynes prison. He was eventually captured, but then escaped for the third time from Grasse prison using a helicopter that was hijacked by four masked men. Payet and his accomplices then fled the scene and the pilot was released unharmed.

Obviously, police departments are not alone in recognizing the advantages of helicopter air support.

Force multiplier

Thursday, July 9th, 2009


In 1949, the New York City Police Department acquired a Bell 47 helicopter, launching the first air support division in the world. What started as a simple aerial observation platform has evolved into a high-tech police asset. Today’s law enforcement helicopter has high-definition, multi-sensor, gyro-stabilized, camera systems, tracking devices and microwave downlink capability to name a few.


One highly effective camera that severely limits a criminal’s ability to hide at night is a thermal-imaging system. This type of camera sees in the infrared spectrum, which detects differences in temperature. For example, a suspect hiding in a group of bushes glows on the screen from body heat. These systems are very effective as the Albuquerque Police Department’s air unit demonstrated when directing ground officers to apprehend a fleeing suspect. The TFO (tactical flight officer) saw him remove a gun from his belt and throw it on the roof of a building. The heat from the suspect’s body had warmed the gun enough that the air unit’s thermal camera saw the abandoned weapon.


This chase won second place in FLIR Systems (one of the camera manufacturers) 2007 vision awards. This and other chases using FLIR cameras can be seen on the Web site under the vision awards tab (


Another valuable tool for police helicopters is a moving map system. When responding to a call, the TFO simply keys in the street address and it appears on the map with heading and distance information for the pilot. As the helicopter flies directly to the location its position is over laid on a detailed street map. Once overhead, the TFO can give precise information regarding streets, directions and intersections to the ground crews.


To see all of this in action, my wife and I rode along with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The air support unit began in 1956 with one helicopter and has grown to a fleet of 20. Our pilot was Bob Harrell and the TFO was Mark Burdine. That night they were assigned to the San Fernando Valley. Bob was busy flying the aircraft, listening to police radios, and talking to ATC. At the same time Burdine was communicating with headquarters, managing the equipment and directing ground crews.


They responded to one particular call where a patrol car was attempting to stop a car that was identified as a vehicle used in a previous armed robbery. We flew an intercept course to join up with the ground officers. Arriving at the scene in just a few minutes the car had pulled over in a parking lot and the officers were waiting for back-up before approaching the vehicle. We circled a few hundred feet overhead keeping a powerful spotlight on the car. Once back-up arrived, the officers were able to approach the car and take the suspects into custody safely. The spotlight allows the officers to clearly see what is going on, but makes it hard for the suspects to see the officers.


On another call, the crew helped officers search a dark and assumedly abandon building. Here they were able to provide extra light in some areas and watch the perimeter. In the end, no one was hiding in there, but for the ground officers it’s a good feeling to know there is an extra set of eyes watching from above.


To make all this happen safely and effectively, the pilot and TFO each focused on their area of expertise and then worked together as a team to get the mission done. Seeing the professionalism and competence with which these guys did their job was impressive.


Mark Burdine (TFO), Beth McAdams, Bob Harrell (Pilot)LAPD's Astar cockpit at night