Troopers in the sky - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Special Report--

Troopers in the sky

The camera reads the difference between the temperatures of objects in its path to create an image. The camera reads the difference between the temperatures of objects in its path to create an image.

December 1, 2004

Albany-- When someone disappears, it often takes eyes in the sky to peer through the darkness.

Those eyes belong to Georgia State Patrol pilots Tony White and Kevin Coalson. One pilots the GSP helicopter while the other operates technology so important, that without it, a mission like this would be close to impossible.

"You're watching out for any obstructions, unlighted towers, all those things," said Coalson. "Then you're trying to coordinate this whole search effort."

The search is centered around a small screen in the cockpit. It shows the world below through the lens of a Forward Looking Infra-Red camera, better known as the FLIR. Through the darkest night, the camera picks up anything with heat.

"As long as it puts off heat and it's during a certain time of day when conditions are right, you can be able to detect things," says White.

The Infra-Red camera picks up body heat. It doesn't matter if you're laying on the ground or even standing up. But using this technology on helicopter takes a lot of focus, a lot of patience and a lot of teamwork.

FLIR cameras are mounted to the bottom of GSP helicopters. They're used all over Georgia and have been since 1996. When the team is called, they can be locked in, and ready to leave the ground in minutes. But they never really know how long they'll be in sky. "We've flown all night long on searches whether it's for a fugitive or whether it's a lost child or a missing person."

FLIR video of a search for an escaped convict can take hours, but even if the escapee is lying on the ground trying to hide, the FLIR operator has him in his sites. "A lot of times we're able to keep that suspect bedded down and let the dog team trail them and walk up on them," says Coalson.

Rescuers also look for Alzheimer's patients. On a freezing night, they can see the woman's body curled up on the ground in the woods. She's surrendered to her confusion. But the GSP pilots keep her on the screen until they talk rescuers right to her. "There are times that they would not be found without use of the helicopter," says Coalson.

When rescuers search for a small child, huddled in the thick of the trees, these are some of the most memorable searches and successes. "It's hard to put a price on our operation when you return a five-year-old child that's been missing to their family," says Coalson.

"To see the love they have for that person and the gratitude they have for you," White said. But the loved ones of lost ones found by these men, never actually see them. "You stay until the job is done."

Then they're gone as quickly as they arrived. "It's just a rewarding feeling, ya know, it's a very rewarding job in all that we do," said Coalson.

"Knowing that you saved a life and that's what we're out here for is to save lives," White said.

Using their eyes and their wings to shine light on dark days, like angels in the sky. Any law enforcement agency can call on the Georgia State Patrol Aviation section when they need their help. Not only to they help find people who are missing, but they are also crucial in drug bust operations.

posted at  2:55PM by dave.miller@walb.com

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