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1995 | 07 | 11 | Articles | The News & Observer | Features
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The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
July 11, 1995
Page E1
Some high fliers from the state highway patrol are keeping an eye out for marijuana.
By Stewart Ugelow

RALEIGH - On a grassy field along Garner Road, a sleek UH-1 Huey helicopter swathed in the black and silver of the N.C. State Highway Patrol sits with its nose pointed due south.

Decades ago and thousands of miles away, Sgt. Chuck Boyd flew the UH-1 over the jungles of Vietnam for the Army. These days he flies over the woods and forests of North Carolina for the Highway Patrol, searching for a very different enemy: marijuana.

During these summer months, the height of "drug season," Boyd and three other pilots will each spend roughly three days a week scouring the state for patches of marijuana that have been tucked away in the middle of corn fields, bean fields and just about anywhere else that water flows.

While aerial drug searches may seem to have little to do with patrolling highways, bureaucracies work in strange ways: The helicopters Boyd flies were given to the Highway Patrol. And the drug searches don’t cost North Carolina taxpayers a penny.

Because, in a curious way, they are North Carolina’s own peace dividend.

Building a fleet:

For 18 years, the Highway Patrol had a single helicopter, a blue-and-white Bell Jet Ranger that flew all the manhunts, all the high-speed chases, all the state fairs, all the stock car races and all the other events where 200,000 people or more were expected to take to the highways. Until 1986, the Highway Patrol even had to share the Jet Ranger with the state Department of Commerce.

But thanks to a great bureaucratic giveaway, it now has an entire fleet.

In the midst of base closings and budget cutbacks, the Pentagon decided it had too many helicopters. So in 1991 it decided to give away the ones it didn’t need anymore.

The surplus helicopters were awarded to law enforcement agencies across the country that promised to use them to fight drugs. The agencies were provided with federal grant money and permission to use the proceeds from the sale of drug dealers’ property to pay for the helicopters’ operation.

Over the past three years, the Highway Patrol got 10 working choppers, plus plenty of spare parts.

From as far away as Texas and from as close as Fort Bragg, the Highway Patrol assembled a new fleet of two UH-1 Hueys and eight OH-58s, the military version of its trusty old Jet Ranger. Two more UH-1s and another OH-58 were salvaged for parts.

The helicopters have been gradually repaired, refurbished and repainted. The machine guns and missiles were taken off. New landing skids, flight range-extenders and special radios that can reach any sheriff and police department in the state were added.

A flight team was culled from the Highway Patrol’s ranks to staff the additional flights.

The missions over Eastern North Carolina were given to Boyd, who had already been flying the Jet Ranger out of Raleigh. Another pilot, Sgt. Al Paterno, was chosen to fly the missions west of Greensboro from his base in Salisbury. During drug season, two part-time pilots join them.

Last year, their first year with two full-time pilots, the patrol captured 1,911 pounds of marijuana.

Ready to go:

On days he’s flying drug missions, Boyd arrives at 7:30 a.m. at the Department of Commerce’s heliport, where the Raleigh-based helicopters are stationed until construction on the Highway Patrol’s hangar is completed.

He fills out some paperwork, checks the weather and inspects the aircraft.

These choppers are military issue, and the amenities are sparse. There’s no autopilot, no padded seats, no soundproofing. It gets so loud during flights that the pilot and the passengers have to talk over an intercom to hear each other. Some helicopters still sport military green and U.S. Army insignias. Five of the OH-58s from Fort Bragg even flew in the Persian Gulf War.

What they may lack in luxury, they make up for in precision. In the hands of a skilled pilot, Boyd says, these helicopters can land in the same tracks they took off from.

As he walks around the helicopters, Boyd checks for fuel leaks, engine burns, "foreign matter" in the intakes, and any sign that the helicopter is not fit to fly. Boyd is on call 24 hours a day, so the helicopters must always be ready.

He points to the Huey to demonstrate. It’s fully fueled. On the passenger’s seat rests his form-fitting, white flight helmet; his radio headset is nestled inside. The keys are in the ignition. From the time a call comes in, he can be in the air in less than two minutes.

When Boyd completes his inspection, he’s ready for takeoff. He’s usually in the air by 9.

He claims not to have a favorite helicopter, and when a mechanic asks on a recent day, "Which one you gonna run?" he selects the Jet Ranger.

As the mechanic lowers the hangar door, Boyd straps in and slips his flight helmet over his short crop of graying hair. He punches a few buttons along the console, flicks some switches along the ceiling.

"Clear!" he barks as he starts the rotors.

The helicopter begins to rock back and forth, with the rotors spinning so fast that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. The scent of burning fuel wafts through the cabin.

Takeoff is soft. The nose dips and the helicopter accelerates upward across Tryon Road, soaring over the barbed wire fence, past the trees and emerging in the clear sky above the Highway Patrol’s training center. The engine’s whine and the rotors’ steady thumping are quickly forgotten.

"This is a helicopter," Boyd announces over the intercom.

The search for marijuana has begun.

The super chopper:

Marijuana. Pot. Weed. Grass.

No matter what you call it, the Highway Patrol sure finds a lot of it. Over $1 million worth of plants this year alone, says Col. Robert Barefoot, the head of the Highway Patrol. Last year the Highway Patrol captured 11.1 percent of all marijuana seized in North Carolina - more than doubling the 5 percent it captured five years ago.

In his office on the second floor of the Archdale Building in downtown Raleigh, Barefoot has a framed photograph of the Huey, with $12,000 worth of marijuana draped over the tail.

When asked about the picture, he calls the helicopter "beautiful" and speaks about the machine in much the same way a fawning father would about a son or a daughter.

And why not? He has largely overseen the formation of the helicopter fleet. He hopes to eventually have enough helicopters deployed so that the Highway Patrol can reach any part of the state in less than 45 minutes.

For Barefoot, the decision to accept the helicopters was not a difficult one.

There was the cost, for one thing. While non-drug missions in the helicopters are paid for out of the Highway Patrol’s budget, just as they were when the patrol had only the Jet Ranger, the drug flights are essentially free.

"We have all these helicopters in operation at zero cost. Not a penny," he says. "We take great pride in that."

Then there are the other benefits.

Helicopters are used in searches for missing children, Alzheimer’s patients and fugitives.

They dramatically simplify high-speed highway pursuits. No automobile can outrun a Huey cruising at its top speed of 140 mph.

They ease the pressure on the National Guard, which also maintains a helicopter squad to assist in drug busts, such as the two in Durham County last week.

They improve the Highway Patrol’s relationship with sheriffs and police departments, who get to share in the glory of helicopter-led arrests.

But most importantly, they terrify North Carolina’s criminals.

"When they see this helicopter overhead, they are afraid to come out. They hunker down," Barefoot says.

"And if they do, we catch them."

A familiar flight pattern:

The Jet Ranger has reached a cruising altitude of 300 feet and a speed of 20 to 30 mph. As Boyd turns it in a lazy loop around downtown Raleigh, you can see the depth markings on pools, the words on highway signs, the "street people’s" cabin in the woods of Tryon Hills.

From this height, a trained pilot can spot a single marijuana plant standing 14 inches or higher. The green of marijuana is a fairly distinct color. If you know what you’re looking for, that is.

Boyd has seen plants as tall as 20 feet and found fields of thousands of plants. He doesn’t like to talk about past drug busts though. Nor does Sgt. Paterno, the other full-time pilot.

Paterno explains that he’s often harassed by those he busts. Bragging about his adventures would just make it worse.

He’s already gotten so many nasty calls at home that he’s had to change his number. Someone damaged his car’s paint job with a key. Bags of trash have been thrown into his yard. His mail box has been blown up repeatedly.

It takes a certain resiliency to be a helicopter pilot.

Like the helicopters he flies, Boyd spent considerable time in the military before joining the Highway Patrol.

When the Vietnam War broke out, Boyd enlisted in the Army and signed up for the Warrant Officer Flight Program. It was the only way he could fly in the war without a college degree.

Boyd flew Hueys and other helicopters during two tours of duty in Vietnam and served as a flight instructor at the Army’s helicopter school in between.

When his enlistment in the Army was up in 1971, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had served on the Highway Patrol for 39 years and had retired the previous year.

Boyd spent the first 15 years working the road, the last nine in the air. Although he had occasionally flown Hueys in the National Guard, he never expected to fly them day in and day out again.

"It was like putting on an old glove. It felt like I had never been out of it," he said. "Once you get enough flight time, the aircraft becomes part of you."

And he gets plenty of flight time. He searches for drugs for six to eight hours a day, stopping every two hours to refuel. He has a computer on board that uses satellites to calculate his position and then gives him a list of the 15 closest airports.

He pays for the fuel with credit cards.

Finding the grass:

In a clump of woods between the Farmers Market and N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, Boyd spots a few plants of marijuana, hidden by some trees. He pulls the Jet Ranger into a tight circle, craning for a better look.

Like most of his finds, it appears to be a personal stash.

"This is what flying for marijuana is about," Boyd says. "You can find it anywhere, the middle of town, someone’s back yard. Just about everywhere I go, I’m looking at the ground."

When he spots marijuana, he punches a button on his computer that records the coordinates. Sometimes, if there’s a place to land, he or another patrolman will go down and retrieve the marijuana. If there’s not, like today, he will call the land owner and have it destroyed. If they find a lot, planning for a bust begins.

"No one plants it on their own land," he explains. "They always go on someone else’s land and plant it."

Boyd circles a few more times, trying to discern a path in the trees that leads to the marijuana. He can’t make one out. He decides to return home.

When he sets the helicopter down, Boyd indeed lands within five inches of the tracks he had taken off from. He could have landed in the tracks, he insists, but chose not to.

"I meant to do that," he says. "Otherwise, it kills the grass.