A Ride in the Sheriff's Helicopter

Written June 5+, 2019

Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,

certificateRemember our charity evening at the May Sierra Foothill Conservancy Dinner and our splurge in the silent auction? Well, it was now time to jump into Fresno County Sheriff's Eagle One and see the sights.

When I called to arrange our helicopter ride-along, Deputy Cunha was more than friendly and welcoming. Apparently this is a fairly regular occurrence for them, although it would be anything BUT regular for us. (Our only other helicopter tour was in Sedona in late 2017.)

I'll start at the end, just for orientation. The Fresno Sheriff's Air Support Unit consists of two helicopters (with a third one on the way) and one fixed-wing airplane. The county is over 6,000 square miles, larger than Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island or Liechtenstein. Chasing bad guys or rescuing careless folks calls for a substantial investment in high-tech flying gear. Our goodwill trip was simply an added bonus.

Here is where we flew, including the last map that shows where I took 994 photos. I promise, I will not show them ALL in this diary.

By the way, in building this diary, I chose to make it more story than just a hundred or so pictures. This takes much more time, but the detail should be useful for current audiences, including Marianne and me, and I am sure everything will be far more understandable years from now, when we are sitting in rocking chairs, living on memories.

big map path with pictures

hangerWe arrived at the Air Unit's hanger at Fresno International Airport promptly at 8:00am and walked in past the green machine we would be using. I noticed that this would be a "doors off" flight. Great for photography and generally seeing the world.

waverBefore we could do anything, we needed to sign wavers agreeing, I think, that falling through the open doors would not reflect poorly on Fresno County Sheriff Mimms and her team. Seemed reasonable.

Craig explainsOffice work done, Flight Officer Craig (it was first names only, for friendliness more than anything else) walked us through the details of riding in one of their MD-500E helicopters. His theoretical discussion seemed pretty straightforward: keep your hands inside and NEVER walk behind the helicopter where either the heated exhaust or the spinning tail rotor will do bad things to you.

optionsHe also showed us the optional equipment, including a million-candle-power search light and a camera system that can read license plates from cruise altitude - or detect scurrying rats at night, both human and rodent types. The red bag is for river rescues. More on that later.

airplaneThe final tour stop inside the hanger was the department's fixed-wing airplane. It too has one of those super cameras hanging on the side.man cave

Inside, the four passenger seats are squeezed in behind blackout shades with a giant camera-viewing screen. Kind of like a flying man cave. Craig mentioned that a flight was planned for later in the day to observe a Mexican Mafia drug operation. Serious stuff.

pilot and MOut on the tarmac, the pilot was making final inspections and paused long enough for a picture with Marianne.

coupleCraig also got a shot of both Marianne and me. Gabby thinks it should be our Christmas card picture. Later, we would learn that all guest photos are done before the flight does serious damage to carefully coiffed hair. Marianne's, not mine.

Pictures over, we boarded. We were fitted with noise-reducing headphones and a controller that allowed us to talk with the crew. Assault rifles were provided for each passenger. Flight Officer Craig contacted everyone who cared: the control tower and the four different police jurisdictions the Sheriff coordinates with.

connect M M smiling M and rifle Craig

City Tour

Buckled in and communicating with other aircraft and police networks, we took off and headed southwest. I was struggling a bit to understand what was below us, but the Highway 168 and 180 interchange was clear enough, as was the horse racing track down at the Fresno Fairgrounds. Even though we were just inches from a big open door, we felt well attached to our flying carpet.

takeoff golf? 168 180 racetrack

Highway 41We approached downtown from the south. I think this is the start of Highway 41, heading toward Yosemite. Selland arena

Next was the Selland Arena and nearby entertainment venues. (This reminds me, we need to go to more live entertainment!)

City HallThen comes City Hall, looking like the Flying Nun's wimple. We have been visiting there lately to lobby for community improvements.

CommunityWe circled over Community Hospital, noting the three helicopter landing zones. We looked for neighbor Dr. Steve's office, but didn't see him.

water towerThe "famous" Fresno Water Tower seemed kind of forlorn, sitting in the middle of parking and traffic. Actually, on the ground, that's also true.civic center

We circled back around, over the government buildings that occupy a big chunk of downtown.

baseballThen I could get a good view of Chuckchansi Stadium. Neighbor Steve's (different one) box seats were as empty as the rest of the place.

highways 41 and 180We headed north. The interchange of Highways 41 and 180 is an impressive construction and, from up here, it was easy to see how it wiped out a large swath of original Fresno, the Armenian neighborhood, specifically.Blackstone

Finally, we passed over the part of Blackstone Avenue where we have been working with the Better Blackstone organization to improve the look and function of the boulevard. Maybe next time we are up here, it will be hidden underneath rows of trees!

Our neighborhood

FHS and Big RedNext on the tour was a visit to our neighborhood. Flight Officer Craig dialed our address into his gps navigator and we were on our way. Our first recognizable neighborhood landmarks were Fresno High School and The Big Red church. (It actually has a more formal name, but nobody uses it.)

FCCA couple blocks east and we could see the Old Administration building at Fresno City College (FCC) and the houses just south of us.

pointingThen Craig pointed toward our houses, in the block north of FCC.

Porter TractLooking east again, here are the two or three blocks that constitute the Porter Tract Historic District - our neighbors. And our house down there on the corner.

our house close up

Leaving the Porter Tract, we swung past FCC and then the neighborhood grocery store, Smart and Final - not the finest food, but serviceable. Farther north on Blackstone we passed over a local Denny's (not bad, as Denny's go) and one of the very first McDonald's in the nation.

FCC Smarties Dennys_McD

ManchesterJust north, we could see Manchester Mall, Fresno's first mall and, reportedly, the initiator of the collapse of downtown business. For those not familiar with the area, Fresno has a long history of moving the commercial center farther and farther north, first Manchester Mall, then Fashion Fair and Fig Garden Village, then River Park Shopping Center, and now even farther, outside of Fresno County. (A promising sign: Manchester Mall is just completing a $60 million rebuild that they hope will counter the northern sprawl. We'll see.)

West of Manchester is the old Fig Garden neighborhood. Looking down, it was hard to see the houses for all the trees. (Note the inches between my shoe and open air.) Old growth is one of the attractions of the mid-century neighborhood, that and the Fig Garden Swim and Tennis Club perhaps.

edge view Fig Garden FG Swim and Raquet
Craig and cars

We finished off our shopping tour by flying over the acres of car dealers on Blackstone. I wonder how long the city will need so much space devoted to car sales.River Park

At the northern end of Blackstone, we went over River Park Shopping Center, arguably the best shopping in the area - until things move north into Madeira County.


Lakes and the San Joachin River

Woodward ParkWoodward Park, at the north end of Fresno, is probably the largest park in the city. (Unfortunately, Fresno is infamous for a lack of parkland.) The view from up here was nice, but later I heard on local news that we should have been looking more closely. At about the time we were passing above this part of the lake, a woman was killed with a gun, probably suicide. I can't help but wish we'd have seen "something" and whisked down to intervene. Only in hero movies, I suppose.

sand and gravelmachinesJust north of the park was a sprawling sand and gravel operation. (Maybe this is why Fresno expands north, closer to material?) From above, even industrial facilities look interesting, at least to photographer-engineers.

San Joachin swift water crewA bit more north was a particularly treacherous section of the San Joachin River called Lost Lakes. Due to the heavy winter and spring rains and snows, the water was exceptionally high and fast. This week it was closed, except for swift water rescue training and helicopter patrols. Tour for us, but work for the guys up front.

rescueJust a few days ago, the Fresno Sheriff's helicopter pulled two women out of a flooded grove of trees. At about 40 seconds into the video, you can see our Flight Officer Craig standing on the rail, paying out the rescue line. Yikes!

filters triicky curve

All this dangerous San Joachin water flow was being fed by releases from Friant Dam. With warm weather coming, the water control people had no choice but to be sending water downstream, so the snow melt does not overwhelm California's complex system of dams, dikes, and canals.

dam ahead Friant Dam down to dam overflow


Beyond Friant Dam is Millerton Lake. We have driven up here, only to be greeted by more dry shoreline than water. This year, we could see flooded parking lots and a very long walkway out to the floating docks.

pathflight officerMillerton Lake is much larger than we had ever seen from our road approaches and today we were in luck because the crew "needed" to fly most of the lake, "checking for stranded boaters". At least that's what they said. They also mentioned enjoying the "E-ticket ride".

far hillsrocksshoreWe started high enough to look over the hills off to the nearby table mountains and the higher hills to the south. Then we went down close to the shore, looking for those lost boaters. The walls of the canyon were almost close enough to touch.

Hills and Farms

The most dramatic hills were the table mountains that run along the southern flank of Millerton Lake. We rose up the vertical face, crested, flew across flat grassland, and passed over the far edge. I wish I would have had a video camera, but maybe these stills will give the idea.

below cliff higher yet cresting
grassland over dege look back

Further along, we passed over the hills and rangeland that is typical for the Sierra foothills. We have never really spent much time in these areas. Maybe we should. (Need a horse?)

creeks house in valley hills
hills farm pond

Elsewhere on this return leg, we passed over farms, each with their own pattern, carefully created over years and generations.

plowed organic? even trees leveled

Houses, BIG Houses

One of the surprises was the abundance of nice houses in the area north and northeast of Fresno. Of course, from the highways, we had seen plenty of developments, but from the air it was possible to snoop on the more isolated homes, some quite palatial. Some of the nearest in were in groupings a few thousand square feet per house.

five two dozen six on ridge


Those on Millerton Lake ranged from humble to not-quite-so. The big one here is on its own peninsula and had lake views all around. Who lives here?

There was a wide range of big houses out in the valley, from fancy farm houses, with fields running right up to the driveway, to "normalish" compounds with plenty of space, to these last two: elaborate hilltops that would have suited Italian royalty. Your favorite?

farmer spaces hilltop compound

green lawngreen pondIt was easy to see which homes had water problems and which did not. The house to the left had no problem keeping acres and acres of lawn green. The community of the houses on the right seemed to have settled for just a green pond. Mosquito country.

Closer to town we flew over Quail Lake, a water-centered development, houses crammed together, but plenty of water-front lots and a nice neighborhood swimming pool and "yacht" club. Too crowded. Not my cup of tea.

lakeside squeezed in yacht club


Closest in were the massive housing developments of Clovis. These definitely are not what I would look for in a neighborhood, but they do serve to keep the area housing relatively affordable, by California standards.

So, impressions? First, it's easy to see there is some wealth in Fresno County. Huge mansions and whole developments of multi-thousand square foot homes do not come cheap. Also, those who fill the family farm fields with huge developments are part of in the real California gold rush - land development.

Schools and a Final "Chase"

Clovis East

With all those housing developments, Clovis is also home to a pair of huge school complexes. We flew over Clovis East (I think - could be West) and it seemed more a college campus than high school.

poolFSUCloser in we passed over Fresno State University (FSU). Here, the sports complex was easy to spot. We circled the pool to see if neighbor Jeanne was out coaching her girls, but it looked pretty quiet.Mamo House

While we were in the FSU neighborhood, we asked Officer Craig to buzz Marianne's mother's house. He plugged in her address to his computer and we zipped right there. We asked later if she heard us, but we may have stayed too high.

By now our ride-along was about over and I expected just one more hop over to the nearby airport, but the crew started communicating with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) who were reporting need for aerial service. Apparently, CHP had stopped a driver out in the fancy Van Ness Extension area and, after stopping, she drove away.

spottingVan Ness ExtensionThe pilot increased our speed significantly and we zipped over to try to spot the "runner". We circled the neighborhood, but could not spot the silver Charger the CHP had stopped. Expanding the search didn't help and I noticed that cars move from quiet neighborhoods to busy streets in just seconds. Once in the flow of traffic, I can not image seeing anything useful, unless the culprit drives erratically. A lesson to remember.

suspect houseThe CHP had noted the Charger's license plate however, and traced the car to a neighborhood east of town. Our pilot changed course and sped that direction. Again, we could not spot anything and the crew called it a day when the police arrived on the ground to ask the car owner for a story.

GalloOn the way back toward the airport, we flew over the largest winery in America, the Gallo facility on the east edge of Fresno. The hundreds of tanks look more like an oil refinery than a winery and no tours or wine tasting happen here. Just industrial production.Downtown

On our final turn, downtown Fresno looked brighter and more interesting than before. I will remember this view and maybe it will help maintain a more positive sense of our current hometown.


Back at FAT

National Guard terminalFresno-Yosemite International Airport (identifier:FAT) is home to a National Guard wing alongside the commercial terminal. The whole complex is more impressive from above than it appears from the normal road approach. Not as impressive as SFO or LAX or SEA, but not bad for our little city.Tower

landedapproachOur pilot cruised past the tower and approached his landing trailer. He set down gently, without hardly a bump. I was definitely disappointed the flight was over (but glad it happened!)

jump outGetting out of our ride was not as easy as we expected. After almost two-hours of vibration, crammed into the small back seat, our legs were barely functioning. We would not recover from our "sea legs" for several hours!

Back inside the air crew office, we chatted with the ground folks and our flight crew. We could not thank everyone enough for the great experience. And we received our signed certificate


It will be awhile before we have another diary tale to match this one. We have only "regular" activities planned, visits with friends, mostly, but we can never tell.

Stay tuned

John and Marianne