Aboard Eagle Two

As soon as I set foot in the States in 1990, I knew I had landed in a very special place.

But if someone had told me back then that, one day, I would also land at the County Sheriff’s Airport, I would have dismissed these crazy words with a French shrug.

And yet…

A few years ago, my husband had won an auction bid on “One Trip for Two Aboard Eagle One, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Helicopter”, at a fundraising event benefiting a local high school.

When I finally took the time to book this special trip, my husband decided that he would rather stay on firm ground, so our son joined me. He has just turned eighteen and this is the minimum age required to board the helicopter. Perfect birthday gift, I thought. In return, he offered to be my photographer. Deal.

When I arranged the reservation I was given some specific information, and the writer I am loved the mystery surrounding the address, the gate, and the phone call I had to give before being granted access on the airport grounds.

When my son and I showed up on Sunday afternoon, we were a little early and we saw the helicopter land, its overhead blades slashing the air like mad knives.

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While I was searching my purse for the number to call, someone had already spotted my little car and sent a flight officer over to open the gate.

Sounds a little cheesy, especially for someone who has no military/police/law enforcement experience and knowledge, but my heart fluttered at the sight of the flags billowing under the gentle California breeze, the green helicopter adorned with the yellow logo of the eagle, and the flight officer in his jumpsuits and dark sunglasses.

I parked between two Sheriff’s SUV and followed the flight officer who had welcomed us inside. Again his dark green jumpsuit, heavy black boots, and sunglasses made me think of a Tom Clancy’s book or some kind of Top Gun movie.

I had to mentally pinch myself: This is for real.

Inside, an enlarged photo of two Sheriff’s cars driving in the night with Eagle One hovering above them, was pinned above one of the metallic desks filling the space.

Again, I couldn’t avoid the comparison with a Hollywood movie, realizing that Hollywood feeds its inspiration with real law enforcement situations.

My son and I were asked to fill a form with our basic information. In the background, a radio kept sending cryptic messages, reminding me that these men were first and foremost working.

We were soon finished with the paperwork, but the flight officer was busy checking business related emails, so as I waited I looked around, taking in the pilots’ bags ready to go in case of a call. On the back of each chair, a bomber jacket with cool badges was neatly hung.

I elbowed my son and pointed at them. He smiled, knowing my weakness for bomber jackets.

Everyone had told me to wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and since the weather was in the mid 70s, light clothing had also been recommended.

The flight officer glanced at my pair of linen pants and sleeveless light T-shirt.

“Did you bring a jacket?” he asked.

“Everybody said it would be stuffy in the helicopter.”

“No,” he said, it’s cold up there. Maybe you have something in your car?”

My son offered his sweatshirt but, like me, he wore a short sleeves T-shirt underneath. I’m not the kind of mother who would steal a jacket from her kid’s back.

Another man clad in the same outfit showed up. He would be our pilot.

We had to empty our pockets and I left my purse and car keys behind. My son wrapped his camera lanyard tightly around his wrist.

“Everything flies, up there,” the pilot said.

The four of us stepped outside. The light wind was silk on my shoulders, but I caught again the pilots’ worried glances on my summer clothes, better suited for a stroll on the Santa Cruz boardwalk than a ride in a helicopter, I realized.

The flight officer retrieved his way inside the office and returned with a …bomber jacket that he handed me.

My son flashed me a grin, in half mockery half envy.

The jacket was big on my 5’7’’ frame, but I zipped it right away, in case someone changed his mind.

We were helped inside the helicopter, buckled up, provided a couple of specific procedures to follow in case of an emergency landing or a crash, and given a set of heavy duty headphones with a small command to talk and listen to any order or comment that would be made while in the air.

The pilot wore a full head helmet with a Go-camera.

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The aircraft hovered above ground for a couple of minutes before the power of the rotating wings lifted us in the air. I clasped my seatbelt when I realized that we would fly with the doors wide open. We finally took off and the experience took my breath away. The feeling of freedom mixed with an exciting tinge of fear, is indescribable.

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I love my native France, which is considered one the loveliest countries on earth, but I fell instantly in love with the raw beauty of the US when I arrived there. The vastness and diversity of my adoptive country is a constant vertigo, which often gives me the shivers.

The geography of California is especially diverse and photogenic. From above, the realization is sharp and a small ball tightened in my throat, which had nothing to do with the height or the nausea that the pilots had warned us about.

Since the helicopter is based in the Fresno County the pilot couldn’t take us to our home, a county away, but after circling above the city and its clean squares of green lawn and blue pools, we flew above the San Joaquin River as well as right above the Friant Dam and Millerton Lake. Soon the familiar blue and grey Sierra appeared in the distance. This is the majestic and serene view that surrounds our home up there.

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I equally like big cities and natural scenery, yet when we flew above the green ribbon of the river, surrounded by chiseled mesas and narrow canyons, the beauty left me speechless. So when the co-pilot asked us if we were okay in the back, I let my son make the talking.

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The sound inside the helicopter would be deafening without a headset. In my safe bomber jacket, I mocked the temperatures that alternated between warm and cold.

Once in a while my son and I exchanged glances and smiles, unable to talk or simply preferring silence to words. Sometimes this is just better that way.

The pilot hovered, flew vertically and horizontally, making sharp and yet perfectly controlled turns.

I wondered how hard the training must be. I concluded that it was too late for a complete change of lifestyle. But a hint of regret hit me. Flying a helicopter must be really very, very cool.

We flew for an hour and fifteen minutes, above farmlands, the river, wealthy neighborhoods with backyard pools larger than resorts’, poor streets where houses were smacked on dirt pads.

 

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From above we saw children splash in the river, families boat on the lake, cars idle along the highway, and women stroll to the mall. A Cinco de Mayo festival had gathered many people downtown. On a church plaza, paramedics carried a stretcher to their ambulance.

Down below life was being lived, in all kinds of ways and all sorts of neighborhoods.

And always the mountains standing guard in the distance.

The landing was smooth, made horizontally, which I found awesome.

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The flight officer asked my son and I to wait until full stop of the aircraft. He would then help each of us out. My son was first, and while he walked away from the aircraft, I gathered the zillions of impressions from this special ride.

Back inside the office I unleashed my enthusiasm and told the flight officer and pilot that the reason I didn’t talk up there was simply because I was speechless, which made my son smile. The pilot showed us some examples of their recent interventions on a mega screen.

One of them was the rescue of a paraglider who crash-landed in the Sierra. When the man was helped in the helicopter, he got to slip on a vest, bearing some similarities with the jacket I wore. He was flown for minor treatment and the vest was taken away when he was released to a paramedic pilot who would take him to the hospital. The smile of relief and gratitude on the paraglider’s face was palpable through the screen.

Afterward, the flight officer and pilot answered to each and every of my son’s and my questions.

Yes, Eagle-1 and Eagle-2 patrol seven days a week 365 days a year.

Yes, the flight officer and pilot are deputies and can pull anyone over and make arrests.

Yes, the kind of ride my son and I had the privilege to enjoy will soon cease, due to a recent federal decision.

It was time for thanks and goodbyes.

One last thing had also to be done.

Reluctantly, I took the bomber jacket off and handed it over.

I shivered.

Up there I hadn’t been cold or afraid for one second.

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Have you ever boarded an helicopter? Where did you fly?

Comments

  1. wow!! after seeing photos like these, I most certainly want to try! it’s so amazing that the pilots do this day to day, without feeling just awe but complete control and confidence. 🙂

  2. What an amazing adventure for you and your son Evelyne! Loved this post. I have been on a helicopter once with my now ex when we flew to Alcatraz in San Francisco but that was a very short ride. The views you had here were spectacular and i agree totally with you about the beauty of California (just wrote about that funnily enough!). What this post really reminds me of though is the gift I gave my husband for his 50th birthday a few year’s ago which was a flight in a Tiger Moth plane. He flew over the countryside of Dorset and over areas he knew so well from where he grew up and I’ve never seen him so happy as that day. And yes, he got to wear the goggles and the bomber jacket, I’m looking at the photograph of him sitting in the plane even now as I type this! He will never forget it and I know you and your son won’t forget your experience either 🙂 Lovely story.

    • Thank you, Sherri. Your experience must have been cool too. And the gift to your husband is a lovely idea. My son spoke about our flight today as he spotted a helicopter hovering above the highway on his way back from school. He loved our ride very much and appreciated even more the work these deputies do every day to make sure we are safe. As for me I thank my son for the photos! I was too absorbed by the scenery to do anything else.

  3. Wow!!!

  4. What an amazing experience. Your description made it seem almost real. I have not been up in one, but I hope to make such a flight at some point.

    • Thank you, Dan. I’m happy that you shared the ride through my words. Honestly it was awesome and I knew it would be special. But I was not prepared for an hour and fifteen minutes. I ended up with 300 photos so I might serve you some once in a while over the next weeks. If you get the opportunity, take it.

  5. I’ve been in 2 helicopter rides…in Hawai’i, over Kauai Island. Gorgeous. The other in British Columbia in the mountains.

    Do you miss France?

    • Thank you, Jean, for stopping by. Your two rides must have been great as both locations are gorgeous.
      If I miss France? Sometimes for strange reasons I would love to be there. Right now. It can be for a perfume smelled in the street, a book I read or a conversation with my mom.
      I miss France less now than I did when I was newly arrived in the USA. I will certainly always loved my native country because it is my childhood and youth. But my life is now here in the USA and I love this land as much. Differently but as much.

  6. I enjoyed the ride along – thank you 🙂

  7. It’s so beautiful !

  8. Thanks for sharing this Evelyne, I’ve never had a helicopter flight but it sounds amazing.

    • Nice to see you, Andrea. This ride was quite unique. I will never see helicopters and their pilots the same way. And of course the nature freak I am loved the scenery from above.

  9. I loved your trip in the sky! Looking at California from that point of view is ….COOL!

    ♥ღLinda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

  10. What a wonderful experience–the pictures are lovely! I’ve only been on a helicopter ride over Hawaii. I remember sitting in the very front and not realizing how wide that glass is, how you seem to hover over the land because the pane is so transparent. Scary but also thrilling!

  11. Nice to see you, Jennifer. Flying above Hawaii must be really cool, too. In fact, I sat in the back with my son and were amazed to see so well. The front seats must be awesome with the wide pane. Maybe another time!

  12. I’m not a native here either, but it must say that California can be breathtakingly beautiful. And so varied- rugged, temperate, wild, gentle, dry, lush.

    Great post! And what fun for you and yr son.

    • Thank you, Winifred for your visit and your words. I find the entire country very photogenic, some regions are simply more striking, California is among one of them. You’re right about the experience with my son. We’ve done a few great trips together and since he’s my only boy, it is indeed very special.

  13. I’m not a native here either, but I must say that California can be breathtakingly beautiful. And so varied- rugged, temperate, wild, gentle, dry, lush.

    Great post! And what fun for you and yr son.

  14. Wow! That sounds like such a fun day. I half thought you would get to hold onto that jacket though, 🙂

    • It was a great experience and I was glad that my son was with me.
      And yes, I wish I could have kept the jacket! Always loved them. For me, this kind of jacket like the baseball one, represented the US when I was a teenager growing up in France. It was very cool to wear one. But wearing a real one? Too cool.
      Thank you for stopping by.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] afternoon, my son and I took our daily canoe ride together. Since our helicopter ride and our hike to Gaylor Lakes, my son has grown to like his father’s camera a lot and has in turn […]

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