HBPD’s aero unit catches bad guys, makes rescues and saves lives

By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher

They decided they would shoot the police officer.

Two parolees had just committed a burglary before being pulled over for a traffic stop in Huntington Beach.

When the officer came to the driver’s side door, they would be caught.

But, they had a gun.

So they made a plan.

Huntington Beach Officer Mark Wersching remembers that night more than 15 years ago.

He was fairly new on the job, about two years in, when he made what he first thought was a routine traffic stop.

Something made him wait to approach the vehicle.

“My Spidey senses started tingling and I knew something was wrong in the car,” he said.

Then he heard the distinct, and somewhat comforting, sound of rotor blades slicing through the night air.

HB1, the police department’s helicopter unit, was overhead.

Huntington Beach Police Officer Mark Wersching and Sgt. Chris Nesmith return from a call in an MD 520N police helicopter at the Huntington Beach police heliport. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Huntington Beach Police Officer Mark Wersching and Sgt. Chris Nesmith return from a call in an MD 520N police helicopter at the Huntington Beach police heliport.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Wersching waited for backup while HB1 hovered ready to give chase from the air, if anyone attempted to flee.

Nobody ran, and the incident did not escalate.

But it could have.

The parolees were arrested and, in a later interview with police, the passenger admitted the plan to shoot Wersching and run.

“Talking to them in the interview, they said they didn’t go through with it because the helicopter was there and they knew they weren’t going to get away,” Wersching said. “From that day on I thought ‘OK, this is cool.’”

***

There are countless stories of how HB1 has prevented crime, apprehended burglars and even saved lives.

Like the time in 2008 that construction and heavy traffic prevented the fire department from responding quickly to a child not breathing call.

HB1 landed in the neighborhood, provided medical aide and dislodged the object the boy was choking on.

“The doctor said that if the pilots had not gotten there when they did, that child would have either suffered brain damage or died,” Wersching said.

Or the time when HB1 landed in Huntington Harbour after a young girl got her hair caught in a jacuzzi drain, pulling her under water.

Pilots landed near the pool and helped free the young girl.

The air unit is more than felony car chases and foot pursuits, though they get their fair share of those as well.

They help find lost children on the beach, enforce traffic laws from the air and even help spot, and arrest, drunken drivers.

“Last year, we either made or assisted in about 200 drunken driving arrests,” Wersching said.

HB1 also patrols city events and scans the ocean on busy summer days looking for distressed swimmers.

“We can spot a rip tide from two miles away,” said Sgt. Chris Nesmith.

HB1 is equipped with floatation devices the pilots can throw to swimmers in trouble as lifeguards swim to make the rescue.

“It happens frequently,” Wersching said.

Some of HB1s impact on community safety may go unnoticed by residents, but not by the pilots who see the action first-hand.

“Its presence  prevents crime and that is never quantified because those crimes never occurred,” Nesmith said.

Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Chris Nesmith, left, and Police Officer Mark Wersching show off one of the police departments three helicopters at the Huntington Beach Police heliport after returning from a call. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Chris Nesmith, left, and Police Officer Mark Wersching show off one of the police departments three helicopters at the Huntington Beach Police heliport after returning from a call.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

***

Founded in 1968, Huntington Beach was the first air support unit in Orange County and the second in California.

Today, Anaheim and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department also have helicopters that police Orange County.

HB1, the call sign for all three of HBPD’s helicopters, is responsible for also patrolling Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, and is often called to help other cities without air support such as Irvine, Tustin and Westminster.

Huntington Beach is unique in that it is a self-sustaining unit.

The city owns the land, its hangar and its helicopters. The heliport has its own fueling station on site and is a certified repair station.

These attributes helped the unit thrive, even during rough economic times, Nesmith said.

“This is, essentially, a mini airport,” he said. “The people who made the decisions in the 1960s made the right call, and we are reaping the benefits of it now.”

Six pilots make up the HB1 unit, along with two dedicated mechanics — Glen Erickson and Mike Cavanaugh.

“None of this would be possible without our mechanics,” Nesmith said.

Nesmith, the supervisor for HB1, has been with HBPD for 16 years. Before becoming a pilot, he worked economic crimes and patrol.

Wersching has been with HBPD for 19 years, 11 of those with HB1. He is the longest serving member on the team, and worked in crimes against persons, narcotics and patrol before being selected for the unit.

Earning a spot on HB1 is competitive, and not every one can hack it.

Learning to fly is the easy part, Nesmith and Wersching said.

It takes about a year to log enough hours and complete the training to fly, but the difficult part is learning how to be an tactical flight officer (TFO), or observer.

Pilots are required to also work as TFOs, relaying information in real-time so units on the ground can be effective.

“Anyone can fly, but you have to be a good cop to be a TFO,” Nesmith said. “We look for really proactive officers who, on patrol, are out looking for criminals and making arrests.”

Members of the unit work 10-hour shifts, and they are in the air for five of those.

During the hours they are not patrolling the city, the pilots stand ready to respond to any call.

“If something happens right now, we can go. We run in slow motion across the deck and put our helmets on,” Nesmith joked, sitting in a black barcalounger during an interview on a recent Thursday.

Then a phone call interrupted the interview.

“We’ve got to go,” Nesmith tells Wersching.

“We didn’t plan this,” Wersching calls out as he runs to his locker to grab his helmet.

They didn’t run in slow motion, but it should be noted that the classic rock blaring in the hangar served as a perfect soundtrack as the pilots grabbed their helmets and boarded HB1.

Within minutes, they were airborne and responding to a residential burglary call.

The pilots returned about 10 minutes later — the call was reported too long after the crime occurred and there were no bad guys to chase.

“We’re constantly up and down,” Wersching said.

And they love it every time — the way they serve the community, the unpredictability of their day and the view from the top.

“It’s, by far, the best job in the department,” Nesmith said. “You’re a police officer, but you’re in the air — how cool is that?”

Huntington Beach Police Officer Mark Wersching, pilot Aero Unit, left, with Sgt. Chris Nesmith, Air Support Unit, in front of an MD 520N police helicopter at the Huntington Beach police heliport. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Huntington Beach Police Officer Mark Wersching, pilot Aero Unit, left, with Sgt. Chris Nesmith, Air Support Unit, in front of an MD 520N police helicopter at the Huntington Beach police heliport.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC