By CHRISTINE VENDEL
The Kansas City Star
(KANSAS CITY, Mo., AP) — Kansas City police helicopter pilots had gotten used to flying blind at night.
But when they started training this month with night vision goggles, a whole new world emerged.
Areas of the city that resembled large inkwells from the sky now teemed with detail.
“I can’t believe all the stuff we were missing,” said Officer Kevin Colmar. “It’s kind of spooky to think about.”
The night vision goggles are among the most popular technology aboard the city’s three new MD 500E helicopters, which were delivered in September with enough high-tech crime-fighting tools to make Batman jealous. The birds can send live video feeds to officers and police commanders on the ground. Their moving-map system overlays streets and addresses right over camera images. And they have upgraded thermal cameras and high-powered spotlights with features that can only be realized with night-vision goggles.
The new thermal cameras include an infrared laser pointer — visible only through goggles — so the pilot can zero in on objects generating heat. And their spotlights include an infrared filter that can shine an “invisible” beam on bad guys hundreds of feet away while tactical officers wearing goggles on the ground close in.
The special equipment accounts for about half the cost of the $8.6 million helicopters, which were funded by the city’s quarter-cent public safety sales tax.
So far, pilots are most impressed by their $10,500-a-pair night-vision goggles, which debuted on patrol last week. Because the goggles cost so much, the department’s eight pilots are sharing three pairs. They must clean, mount and re-focus each pair before each shift.
The Kansas Highway Patrol — and even medical helicopter pilots — have used night vision goggles for decades. Kansas City police could not because the instrument lighting inside their old Vietnam-era helicopters would have blinded them.
Although referred to as goggles, the devices actually look more like binoculars attached to the pilots’ helmets.
They sit an inch or two from the pilot’s eyes, so each pilot can look beneath them at his instrumentation and also maintain good peripheral vision. Looking “outside the goggles” is important to avoid tunnel-vision and maintain good depth perception — one of the many lessons pilots learned during recent four-day training sessions.
The goggles came in handy right away when Colmar was sent to check out a possible jumper last week off an Interstate 435 bridge over the Missouri River. As Colmar approached, the darkened area below him “turned into day” with the goggles.
He quickly scanned the bridge and determined nobody was threatening to jump. Previously, it could have taken 30 minutes or more to see whether someone was lurking in the darkness. And even then, Colmar wouldn’t have been certain.
“I’m seeing people on sidewalks that I’ve never seen before,” Colmar said, adding that he also sees gaggles of geese and flocks of migrating birds that used to fly by unnoticed.
Pilot Cord Laws said he can now see other aircraft miles away and he can see objects in bodies of water.
“I’m convinced we’re a lot more proficient,” he said.
Other agencies have used night vision goggles to quickly find lost hunters in the woods and fishermen whose boats have overturned, said Justin Watlington, chief pilot for Aviation Specialties Unlimited, the company that trained Kansas City’s pilots.
“In a short amount of time at the KCPD, they will wonder how they ever did their jobs without them,” he said.
Besides rescue missions and finding bad guys, the goggles also make the pilots’ jobs much safer.
Improved safety is the goggle’s greatest strength, said Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Greg Kyser, a pilot assigned to Topeka and Salina.
“I wouldn’t want to fly without the goggles to be honest with you,” he said.
When pilots learn to fly, they are taught to expect the worst, be aware of their surroundings and always scan for a safe place to land. For decades, Kansas City’s pilots’ have been doing that at night with visual acuity akin to legal blindness. The goggles improve their visual acuity at night to 20/20 or 20/25.
Previously, Kansas City police pilots may have opted to land on a city street in an emergency because it was lighted in lieu of a darkened area that contained unknown hazards. The goggles now reveal safer places to land, such as a darkened soccer field that doesn’t have nearby utility poles and power lines.
Laws said he talked with a Kansas trooper who described a near-miss years ago where a pilot without goggles could not see a 1,000-foot tower directly in his path that had lost its lighting. Luckily, the observer in the chopper had night-vision goggles and warned him.
Kansas City’s pilots love that they have another tool in their tool belt.
“What they do for us, compared to the past, is amazing,” Colmar said. “If something happens, it helps us to not just look at a black hole.This brought us up with the rest of the industry.”
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com