As you approach from the 101 freeway on a cloudy and damp Friday night, the concrete mass of the Piper Tech Center looms in the distance like a fort, the Los Angeles River acting as its moat. Located in an industrial corridor between downtown and Boyle Heights, Piper Tech, one of the citys general-services buildings, has, in fact, been fortified against the threat of attack ever since a pissed-off city electrician who worked there went on a rampage and killed four employees in 1995. On top of the heavily guarded, four-story building is an imposing tower, home to the Los Angeles Police Departments Air Support Division (ASD).
Once you get clearance and are buzzed inside, its as if you walked into a military barracks. By no coincidence, Chief William Parker, who admired the Marines, introduced the first helicopters and initiated what would become the LAPDs Air Support Division. The Devil Dog Marines have an English bulldog for their mascot. The ASD, an elite force of 80 officers among L.A.s 9,300 cops, has Buzz the Vulture painted all over the inside of the building: a symbol for the few and the proud.
One captain, 49 pilots, 23 tactical flight officers (TFOs) and seven tower operators make up the ASDs ranks. These officers walk around wearing green fire-retardant jump suits. They have wings pinned to one side of their chests, a badge on the other, and 9mm semiautomatic guns holstered to their underarms or hips.You can run but you cant Hide: Air Support Divisions ghetto bird is the LAPDs eye in the sky.
In the roll-call room, pilots and TFOs decompress, file reports, eat their meals, shoot the shit and tell jokes. But tonight the mood is a bit somber. Just hours ago, 30-year-old Officer Ricardo Lizarraga, a three-year veteran with the LAPD, was shot and killed in South Los Angeles by suspected gang member Kenrick William Johnson. It was the first fatal shooting of an on-duty LAPD officer since 1998. The lowest police-to-civilian ratio of any major city in the U.S. just got lower.
A TV in the background is tuned to the History Channel, blaring war footage. A TFO changes the channel as some officers mill about, reviewing taped news reports of the incident; tragedy is the word being used to describe the situation. Every day the ASD flies 20 hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. Its on call the other four hours. The ASDs flight-schedule board is filled up with assignments as Watch 4, the busiest of the four watches, gets ready for the 8:15 p.m.to6:45 a.m. night shift.
I meet Sergeant Tony De Molina, a young-looking 39-year-old who is the highest-ranking officer on the watch. De Molina was supposed to pilot our fly-along, but now hes charged with coordinating the pickup of the slain officers mother, who lives in the border area of San Diego. Next, I meet Robert Bob Harrell, a burly, buzz-cut tactical flight officer in his mid-40s whos worked four years in the ASD and, before that, 18 years in the South End, Southwest and Newton divisions.
Harrell makes me sign two papers, a release-and-waiver agreement and a passenger-briefing checklist running down things like If we have to make an emergency landing, DONT run towards the tail rotor blades, itll cut you into two. Harrell suggests we use the restroom now because we will be in the air for at least two and a half hours. Once we make a quick pit stop, he hands us earplugs and motion-sickness bags.
Lets burn some blades! he barks.
On the way out to the roof, we meet our pilot, 6-foot-3, 230-pound Mel Stevenson, who, with his helmet on, reminds me of that guy from CHiPS. As a senior command pilot, Stevenson has 16 years with the ASD and 24 with the LAPD. During his career, hes been everything from a street cop to a training officer to undercover vice.
We walk onto the Jay Stephen Hooper Memorial Heliport, the largest law-enforcement rooftop in the U.S. The football-field-size heliport can hold the fleets 17 helicopters (10 AS350 B-2 Eurocopter, 5 Bell 206B Jet Ranger III, 1 OH-58C and 1 Bell UH-1H), but there are never that many helicopters parked there at one time; some are getting maintenance at the Van Nuys Airport. These silver-and-blue helicopters are lined up neatly in their marked spaces on the tarmac. Blue Thunder was filmed here, Stevenson blurts out, referring to the film starring Roy Scheider that became a TV series. But these arent Hollywood-modified helicopters; these are the real things. According to Stevenson, the $2 million AS350 B-2 Eurocopter is the best medium-sized utility helicopter on the market. As we strap in behind Harrell and Stevenson, I see the countless engine and flight gauges light up like a Christmas tree. The helicopter holds enough fuel for three hours, but tonight well be up for about two and a half hours.