By Dan Huff
RICHARD HANSON HAS been granted a reprieve from his own private hell.
Hanson says nearly every night for the past year unmarked choppers have been buzzing his northwest side house near McGee and La Cañada, making so much noise they interfered with conversation and frightened his two children, ages six and eight.
Often they came in groups of three and circled his house for hours.
"We're not the kind of people who get upset easily about things," Hanson says, "but this went on sometimes three, four and five times a night, from 8:30 p.m. upwards of 1:30 in the morning. My children were having nightmares."
Hanson says the chopper situation went well beyond merely annoying, whirling all the way into bizarre and dangerous.
"Quite frequently they came in very low over my house. It was almost as if we were being retaliated against for complaining."
By whom was unclear--because the choppers were unmarked, Hanson says, he could never figure out who owned them. His frequent calls to the Federal Aviation Administration produced no answers; the Pima County Sheriff's Department was certainly no help--Hanson says they ignored his many calls of complaint. That is, until earlier this month, when a couple of deputies came out and arrested him in front of his wife and kids--as the mysterious helicopters rattled overhead.
Seems the Hanson family was sitting down to a late dinner Monday, March 13, when a chopper buzzed the house. It came in so low and made such a racket, Hanson had to ask his wife to repeat a comment she had just made. Not an unusual incident; Hanson says they're used to missing parts of conversations and bits of chatter on the 10 p.m. TV news due to the chopper noise.
"I intended to do nothing at that point," he says, "but 30 seconds later it came back over the house again."
Hanson got up from the dinner table, walked outside and saw the chopper making tight circles about 100 feet above his property. "Believe, me," he says, "I've become an amateur expert on helicopter altitudes."
So he did what he's done four or five times in the past year--he reached into his van, grabbed a hand-held spotlight, and shined it up at the offending machine.
The pilot promptly flipped on his spotlight and beamed it right back down on Hanson.
"At that point nobody was able to finish dinner," Hanson recalls. "The food went cold on the table."
Following their usual drill, the Hansons first called the Tucson Police Department to make sure it wasn't their chopper assisting in a drug bust. They said it wasn't.
The spotlight duel went on for about 30 minutes before a second chopper appeared.
"At that point I had two helicopters circling over my house, both shining their lights into my carport," Hanson says.
They looked like all the other machines that had been hovering around the area for the past year, he recalls--not those heavy military jobs, but more like civilian-type Bell helicopters. A year ago he'd videotaped them and sent the cassette off to the FAA hoping officials could identify them. Nothing ever came of it, of course, just like nothing ever came of the $20 or $30 in long distance phones calls he's blown trying to get the FAA to look into the matter.
"I make a call, I file a report. I tell them to get these guys away from my house and my property," he says. "The FAA says we'll call you back, and they never do."
He even tried following a chopper once, but wound up halfway to Marana under an empty night sky.
By that time, of course, he'd already made sure the choppers weren't from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, or local hospitals. Once he'd heard rumors the aircraft were part of some special Army National Guard drug interdiction unit, but others told Hanson such a unit didn't exist.
And so there he stood that night, the lone, besieged homeowner, defending his turf from those mysterious buzzing monsters with just a spotlight and, of course, a phone.
Perhaps when he called 911 for the second or third time, he shouldn't have threatened to shoot the damn things out of the sky. "But I was extremely angry at this point," he recalls, adding he doesn't even own a gun.
But, hey, it worked.
After more than a year of fruitless calls to the Sheriff's Department and other agencies--wonder of wonders--Hanson soon saw two Sheriff's cars and one Oro Valley cop car pulling up to his house.
OK, it didn't work real well.
"A deputy comes up to me and asks if I'm Mr. Hanson. Then he says, 'Sir, you are under arrest.' "
Hanson asked why.
"For endangerment," the deputy replied.
They confiscated his spotlight, and when Hanson went into his carport and opened the door to his house, they grabbed him and ordered him not to leave. The deputies made him sign a complaint listing endangerment and making threats and intimidation as his alleged offenses. It was either that or go to jail.
The Oro Valley cop tried to tell Hanson there was a joint OV/Army drug bust going on.
"I pointed out to him the Oro Valley town limit is three-quarters of a mile away," Hanson says. And he said, 'Sir, you need to know there are drug houses out here. ' "
Hanson merely pointed to his carport door, where his wife and kids were standing. "I said, 'Sir, does this look like a drug house to you?' "
The deputies pushed the cop back.
Oro Valley Police Chief Werner Wolff, when questioned by a reporter later, denied there was some sort of police/military operation in progress that night. Wolff says there was a low-level drug bust earlier that day at the local high school, but certainly nothing involving helicopters and the National Guard.
Wolff adds a lot of Oro Valley residents are madder than hell about the noise from a helicopter tour business flying around Pusch Ridge in the Santa Catalina Mountains. But it's unlikely that company's responsible for Hanson's aggravation, Wolff notes. After all, he asks, "Why would anybody want to see the mountain at night?"
Anyway, the choppers left and the lawmen eventually did, too.
The next day Hanson called the Army National Guard, which uses helicopters. And officials there admitted their choppers were flying that night.
"They apologized profusely and said they'd revise their tactics," an elated Hanson said late last week. The flights over his home have stopped. "The quiet is wonderful," he says. "It's nice just to sit outside and enjoy the quiet."
But several nights ago, Hanson reports, he saw five choppers flying over a residential area about a mile west of his home. "They were evenly spaced and hovering in a crescent formation."
When he called the Oro Valley Police Department, he says, he was told there might be a joint operation underway. Which left Hanson with two questions:
1) Why a military operation in a residential area; and,
2) Why would Oro Valley be involved in a military operation?
Lt. Col. George Gluski, heliport commander for Silverbell Army Heliport, says such exercises are not unusual, although he maintains all urban exercises are conducted strictly according to FAA rules, which include a requirement that pilots maintain at least a 1,000-foot altitude.
"We do training throughout Southern Arizona," Gluski says. "Some of our training involves working with law enforcement agencies...and some of that involves being able to work in urban areas."
The heliport, which has been in operation since 1986, is probably the largest National Guard Base in Arizona, Gluski says. Located on the north side of Pinal Air Park near Marana, it's home to 83 helicopters flying 15 to 30 sorties a day throughout Southern Arizona. About 12 times a year those sorties involve civilian drug interdiction training for various law enforcement agencies, he says.
Gluski adds all of the helicopters based at Silverbell have tail numbers, although he admits they're hard to see because they're black and painted over a camouflage background.
Not exactly X Files-caliber material, but at least Richard Hanson should be able to watch TV without a lot of racket from now on.
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