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Hovering helicopter top choice for searches

Q: While in my backyard the other night, I noticed what was probably a police helicopter flying with its searchlight on. Why do we always see helicopters with lights and not airplanes? Do they even put such lights on planes?

R.S., of Belleville

A: Maybe I should let you feel intelligent by helping you figure out your own answer with another question: What can helicopters do that airplanes can’t?

If you’re a fan of crime dramas or action thrillers, you know helicopters seem to turn on a dime and can slow to a crawl and even hover above a spot. With that ability, they can safely fly at much lower altitudes and land just about anywhere — helipads on top of hospitals, for example. Put all those attributes together, and I think you may begin to see why law enforcement and TV stations generally use helicopters when chasing down criminals or showing the latest breaking news of a fire or chain-reaction accident.

Airplanes, you must remember, stay in the air because their wings generate lift in proportion to their forward speed. Below about 65 mph, an airplane wing “stalls,” meaning air stops flowing smoothly over it. At that point, it stops generating lift, and the plane starts dropping. For that reason, federal aviation regulations mandate that airplane pilots flying in populated areas generally must keep their plane 1,000 feet above the tallest structure because you don’t want to be whizzing around and slam into the Gateway Arch (although, yes, people have flown through the legs since June 21, 1966, three months after it opened).

So if police are tracking an escaped convict at night, an airplane flying around at 1,000-feet-plus probably won’t be of much help. Just imagine a perhaps 5-foot-in-diameter searchlight beam speeding along the ground at 90 mph. Criminals may be fast but they’re not that fast. A second after the light might spot the escapee, it would be long gone and the plane would have to circle around to try to illuminate the person being hunted for another split second. Meanwhile, the suspect would be zigzagging all over the place to evade capture.

On the other hand, helicopters depend not on their forward speed but rather the spinning of their rotors to stay aloft. They can fly at most any speed and hover when required, allowing them to operate at lower altitudes without fear of smacking into a high-rise. As a result, once they get a suspect in their searchlights, it’s far easier for them to track the target, allowing officers on the ground to aid in the chase.

Some agencies, such as border patrols, may employ planes because they can fly higher and faster, characteristics that would be advantageous in that situation. By the way, New York City established the first police aviation department in 1919 with two fixed-wing airplanes, but since the 1940s whirlybirds have become the aircraft of choice and are likely to remain so.

Q: In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been awakened by the singing of birds long before even the crack of dawn. What’s going on, what kind of birds are these and how long will this continue?

C.B., of Belleville

A: Looks like I need to have a word with you, Casey: earbuds. (Or maybe a nice white-noise machine.) Mother Nature is waking up from her winter slumbers, so if this early-morning warbling isn’t music to your ears, you’ll have to find another way to overpower your avian symphony. It’s an annual rite of spring that likely will continue right through the summer, according to one of my very favorite bird brains, Trudy Moore at Wild Birds Unlimited in Swansea.

“They’re starting to get frisky,” she said. “The birds know spring is coming, so they’re getting ready to find a mate and pair up and make a nest and have babies and do their thing. If you watch closely (although probably not at 4 a.m.) some of the birds are starting to exhibit mating behavior. Just the other day I watched a pair of cardinals feeding each other, which is a sign of courting. So this is very normal.”

As for the type of birds you’re hearing, Moore says goldfinches, for example, are starting to get their yellow color back for spring. Just in time for spring training, it also might be relatives of those cardinals Moore saw or perhaps titmice or Carolina wrens.

“The closer to spring we get, the more he’s going to hear things like that,” Moore said. “Each bird has a different time to nest, so it could start now and go mostly through the summer, but it’s just nice to hear the birds singing to you.”

Or not. But although you may think the cacophony is for the birds, Moore reminds people that this is an important time of year to keep their outdoor feeders well stocked.

“The more nutrition they can get easily, the more they don’t have to waste energy finding food. Then, they can concentrate on picking a mate, finding a nesting spot and getting good, healthy eggs.”

That way you can help them come back and bother you next year.

Learn about Islam: Seems to me, at least, that one thing many of us could benefit from is deeper insight into Islam to better deal with widespread misinformation and prejudices. After my recent column on a Muslim immigrant who became an American citizen and is now a member of a White House policy council, Cathy Stoltz told me that the King’s House in Belleville is offering a six-week series on “Christian & Islamic Theology.” The first session was this week, but you’re invited to view videos and join in the discussion from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays now through April 12 at the retreat center, 700 N. 66th St. For more information, go to or call 397-0584.

Today’s trivia

Do you remember the name of the space-age song that kept “Limbo Rock” from hitting No. 1 in 1962? (It also holds the distinction of being the first No. 1 song in the United States by a British group.)

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Remember Chubby Checker asking you, “How low can you go?” when he had us all doing the “Limbo Rock” in 1962? Turns out he was popularizing a dance that had become a mainstay at funeral wakes in Trinidad and Tobago. According to one account, the dance was done for nine days after a death with the limbo bar being placed higher each night to suggest that the dead person’s soul was rising toward heaven. The ninth night was declared victory night, signifying life’s win over death. Some say the dance originally may have portrayed surviving transport to Trinidad on slave ships, on which there was not enough room to stand upright in the hold between the floor and the upper deck.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer