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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Up there I hadn’t been cold or afraid for one second.
Have you ever boarded an helicopter? Where did you fly?