Your Friendly Neighborhood Low-Flying Radiation-Detecting Helicopter

Helicopters circling over a local news event: That’s just one of those noises you get used to in our modern urban soundscape. When you hear the sound of choppers orbiting over some downtown or campus or some random intersection, you know a protest is going on or maybe a fire or maybe someone’s spotted a picturesque car crash.

This morning’s helicopter visit is different. Starting sometime in the groggy hour before 8 a.m., I started to hear a helicopter nearby. It would pass, then return. It sounded like it was flying low. Once I was up and attending to the morning’s first ritual, making coffee, I heard the helicopter coming back and went out and took a look. It looked like it was only about 500 feet up, if that, and it was not orbiting or following anything at that height.

I remembered seeing an article somewhere about some government agency taking radiation measurements over parts of the Bay Area. This helicopter must be part of that whole thing, I thought. After the chopper passed, I went in and tried to find some information.

The summary, by way of the excellent Oakland North blog: “Some government agency” is the Department of Homeland Security’s Nuclear Detection Office and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Despite what I say in the video above, the helicopter is a Bell 412, and it’s outfitted with equipment to measure background radiation levels in the area. The stated purpose: to assist research and development on airborne radiation detection systems. (More on the chopper(s) at Berkeleyside: Low-flying helicopters over Berkeley.)

News Omen

Does this happen where you live? You see or hear a helicopter in the distance. You watch for a few seconds and realize it’s not going anywhere. It’s just hovering. And then you know something like news is happening nearby. Much of the summer, the appearance of helicopters over the UC-Berkeley campus signaled some new hijinks related to a group of tree-sitters trying to stop a construction project at the football stadium. Last spring, a chopper appeared in the dawn skies just a few blocks east of us and just sat there. Turned out a local guy had committed suicide by ramming his car into a line of parked vehicles at 100 mph.

This morning’s case in point this morning: While walking The Dog, we spotted a helicopter just hanging up there to the west, near I-80, the Eastshore Freeway. Two possibilities: a horrific traffic jam, possibly involving major roadway carnage, or some other photogenic event. When we got back to the house, we turned on KCBS, the AM all-“news” channel. The first traffic report comes on. No, nothing about a backup on the freeway down there. What then? During the local news segment, there’s an item about a body discovered burning on the frontage road adjacent to the freeway. Police are investigating. Choppers are hovering.