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Veteran Pilot Keeps Watch Above for Sheriff's Deputies

Veteran Pilot Keeps Watch Above for Sheriff's Deputies

Rob Heyde, pilot of Star One, prepares for take off at Moffett Field in Mountain View in the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office helicopter on Dec. 6, 2010. Star One provides air support for various law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County.

San Jose Mercury News via YellowBrix

December 29, 2010

SANTA CLARA – Rob Heyde spent more than 10 years working as an engineer for computer giants Hewlett-Packard and Apple. But when manufacturing jobs began moving out of the valley, Heyde’s career path went from high-tech to high in the sky above Silicon Valley.

Heyde, 56, now spends three nights a week hovering above Santa Clara County and providing a bird’s-eye view for cops on the city streets below.

Since 2002, Heyde has served as the primary pilot for the Santa Clara County sheriff’s helicopter Star One, patrolling the skies with a sheriff’s deputy from 1,500 feet.

“I never planned on flying for a living,” said Heyde, who earned a pilot’s license while a student at Oregon State University. “I think I got bit by the flying bug and kept going.”

The Sheriff’s Office relies on two civilians to pilot Star One, a five-seat chopper with green and yellow striping that is equipped with an infrared camera, mapping system, night-vision goggles and powerful “night sun” searchlight.

The helicopter has allowed the Sheriff’s Office to rescue lost hikers in county parks, locate wreckage from small-plane crashes and follow suspects who flee from law enforcement officers on city streets. The Star One crew is also responsible for locating 90 percent of the large outdoor marijuana gardens that have been eradicated in Santa Clara County.

Although Heyde has never been a sworn officer, he has become a vital asset to law enforcement agencies throughout the county.

“He takes a lot of pride in our office,” said Lt. Joe Waldherr, who commands the Special Operations Unit for the Sheriff’s Office. “I look at him as being one of our employees. When he’s out there flying, he’s always looking out for our best interests. He’s not going to jeopardize our officers’ safety or our helicopter.”

While working on personal computers for HP and Apple during the early 1990s, Heyde flew Cessnas and other small planes for fun. After going on a helicopter ride, he decided to earn a license to fly helicopters as an “afterthought.” He didn’t plan on doing much with the license.

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But when Heyde left HP and mulled over career options, he bought a helicopter with a friend and began working as a flight instructor.

When the Sheriff’s Office first purchased its American Eurocopter 120 Colibri (French for “hummingbird”) in 2002, a deputy sheriff had agreed to pilot the helicopter. But the deputy, a reserve in the National Guard, was deployed overseas. Heyde heard about the new program, sent the Sheriff’s Office a résumé and got the job.

“I figured it would be a year contract,” said Heyde, who currently has other contracts, including one with a local television station.

The Sheriff’s Office soon determined that hiring an experienced pilot would save money in training costs and spare full-time deputies. Heyde has a part-time contract with the county and does not receive medical or retirement benefits. He flies three nights a week with a sheriff’s deputy as an observer; the San Jose Police Department patrols Santa Clara County the other four nights with its helicopter, Air Two.

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