BOSTON (CBS) – They can be dispatched in an instant.
Every day, they train to be prepared for any mission.
On April 19th, the mission for the three-man Massachusetts State Police Air Wing Team based at Westover AFB was to check out a boat in Watertown, as part of the day long manhunt for the marathon bombing suspect.
Trooper Mark Spencer, the pilot says, “We followed a few leads that didn’t really pan out and then all of the sudden got a lead that did.”
The troopers used their Forward Looking Infrared Camera, called a FLIR, mounted on the helicopter, to see through the shrink wrap on the boat and they could clearly see a man moving inside.
Trooper Ed Mathurin operates the camera. “When I put the camera on it, I was actually pretty surprised. Not only did I see a heat source, but I actually saw the silhouette of a person. The plastic was almost transparent. I could tell it was a human being, I could tell what he was wearing, It was a pretty good picture.”
Trooper Eric Fairchild says, “The first thing I thought of is we have to let the guys on the ground that there is someone in that boat.
Spencer says, “My two crew members… started shooting images of it back to the command post. Tactically speaking they talked everybody into it to tell them what was going on at the time because they couldn’t see what we could see.”
The team monitored every move that the suspect made to protect police descending on the scene on the ground below.
Trooper Spencer explains, “It’s important for us to be able to support the people on the ground. The ground-pounders as we call them are the ones that are doing the most hands on work in that instance.”
Trooper Eric Fairchild communicated directly with Commanders in the Operations Center. He says, “He was moving, he would be on his back and then his stomach. He would be in the bow of the boat and move aft.” Fairchild says they were trying to see what was in his hands, “When we first arrived it looked like he was pushing something up and thru the tarp and we couldn’t see what it was.” Immediately after that, there was gunfire on the ground. Fairchild says the suspect lay down, and then began crawling again.
Trooper Mathurin then says the ground crews moved in with more equipment. “They used the bear cat, it’s an armored vehicle, and it has a large ramming pole on the front of it. Essentially they drove up to the boat and started tearing the plastic away.”
Spencer says they were proud to play a role in helping to keep officers apprehending the suspect safe. “Our focus at that point was to bring… the entire week and the events that occurred to an end.
We could all sense, Boston had enough, the world had enough, we had had enough and we needed to bring this guy to justice.”
For the Air Wing, every day brings a new challenge.
We were up with the Air Wing based in Lawrence, when they got the call to help find a woman who was stuck in a swamp in West Roxbury. In minutes we were on the scene and spotted the woman struggling to get out. The troopers from the Air Wing helped to guide in Boston Police to carry the woman out.
The team will also play an important role in the July 4th security operations, because what they can see in the air can be downlinked in real time to the Command Center on the ground. They can check on roofs, and respond to any call for help.
Their powerful camera can see the ground from three miles in the air. They will be patrolling the Esplanade, communicating the entire time with the Command Center.
Trooper Eric Fairchild says their goal is to: “Be available to the guys on the ground, be their eyes in the sky, whatever they need. If they have a hard time checking a rooftop, we’ll be there. We’ll be constantly downlinking to the ground.”
Trooper Spencer explains, “You’re a part of something big and hopefully we can make it so that it is the safest possible venue we can be at given the circumstances.”
Trooper Fairchild agrees, “A lot of times, it is nice when you have somebody overhead, telling you what they see, helping direct you to a situation. It’s nice to know someone is up there watching over you, and that’s what we will continue to do.”