The luminous spotlight from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter can be easily spotted across the skyline, from the far stretches of Kern County to the heart of Bakersfield.
AIR-1, as the unit is referred to, is in action seven days a week, in the air for two-hour increments from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. It is also on-call throughout the day, according to Lt. Joel Swanson, who is in charge of KCSO’s Air Support Unit. The group consists of eight people — with three full-time staff members and five part-timers — Swanson said.
Machinery wise, there are five helicopters in the unit as well as three airplanes to perform surveillance work. The helicopter models include a MD500, Bell OH58 and Bell Huey II.
Despite their ability to respond quickly, the unit longs for more resources. Some of its helicopters date back to 1969, and budget cuts in the past six years have reduced the unit’s full-time staff by more than 50 percent, according to KCSO Deputy and Chief Instructor Pilot Tim Caughron.
“We typically don’t have the aircraft or the budget available to fly all day long,” Swanson said. “If we could, we would like to. We’re on an on-call basis during the daytime to avoid a significant increase in our flight hours.”
Two of the unit’s pilots include Caughron, who’s been with KCSO for 21 years, and civilian pilot Dan Gates, who was an Army helicopter pilot from 2004 to 2017. Bakersfield Police Department Detective Andrea Pflugh, who’s been with BPD for 30 years, serves as one of the two observers in the unit who go up in the air with pilots.
BPD and KCSO partnered with the air support unit in 2017, she said.
“(My responsibilities include) monitoring the map, the camera, infrared camera, the radios — I listen to four different channels, two (from) KCSO and two (from) BPD. We cannot communicate with the (California Highway Patrol),” she said.
Flight crew members said a slow night requires responding to about two calls while a busy one can mean responding to 12 or more.
Regardless of the frequency the helicopter spotlight will be on as long as AIR-1 is in flight, although that doesn’t mean an active investigation is taking place, Pflugh said. The lightbulbs are extremely expensive and turning the light on and off is strenuous on the bulb and drastically reduces its lifetime, crew members pointed out.
However, the larger clue that the helicopter is actively monitoring a situation is AIR-1 continuously circling overhead, Pflugh said.
“If you see us right circling (in the air), something’s cooking and we’re onto it,” Pflugh said.
The air support crew routinely utilizes the Nextdoor app to communicate with neighborhood residents who may be curious about their extended presence, according to Swanson.
The unit also searches for emergencies such as fires, drownings, stranded individuals and more.
Pflugh and Gates were the first to spot a massive blaze in early March at 1908 Niles St., right as they were beginning their shift. They then put the message out over radio airwaves and a response of 42 total public service personnel arrived to battle the blaze, which resulted in no injuries, according to the Kern County Fire Department.
“We were flying along and (Pflugh) was like, ‘What the hell is that?’” Gates said. “She called it in and everyone showed up (to fight the fire).”
The air support unit also routinely helps with a variety of search and rescue calls in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Kern River.
When not responding to calls, the crew will monitor Bakersfield’s “hot spots” looking for suspicious activity. When asked what comes in handy when looking for suspicious activity from the air, Caughron simply chalked it up to “years of experience.”
“Just from experience (as a road deputy), you can look at something and usually accurately understand what’s going on to determine if it’s something that needs more enforcement or if you just shine the light on them to make them scatter,” Caughron said, who was a road deputy for his first five years in KCSO.
Caughron described AIR-1’s presence as being a “force multiplier.” Besides having the ability to be first on scene, the helicopter can replicate the equivalency of 17 officers on the ground, according Caughron.
“We obviously have a great advantage. We can get above something and see the entire area around the scene we’re over and direct units to a location and watch them as they’re coming in and out for safety,” Caughron said.
With all of the advantages from above, the crew still faces a number of hazards.
Fog is the primary weather condition that can keep AIR-1 grounded, according to Pflugh.
Infrared cameras and night vision goggles are utilized to help improve nocturnal vision. However, these aids can become a hindrance under one particularly dangerous circumstance — laser pointers shined into the helicopter’s cockpit.
“We deal with laser strikes at least once or twice a week,” Caughron said.
Someone was arrested as recently as last week for shining a laser pointer at planes landing at Meadows Field Airport, according to Gates.
Despite being on call during the day, unit members said those hours can be busy. Pflugh said crimes such as burglaries and car pursuits seem to be as prevalent during the daytime in Bakersfield as they are at night.
“(If we receive a call during the day), it only takes us five minutes to get to the air. We just have to pull it out, plug it in and go,” Pflugh said.