After service as a military helicopter pilot during the Cold War, getting shot at was not a new concept for Sgt. Don Childs, of the Virginia State Police.
But Childs admitted that when he took a job flying the state’s Med-flight helicopter, he didn’t expect to face the threat of small-arms fire very often.
Last week, the State Police helicopter he was flying took seven rounds from a high-powered rifle.
The shots came while Childs was attempting to help police locate Christopher Speight, whom authorities have said killed eight in a deadly rampage in Appomattox County on Tuesday.
Childs’ own daughter, Heidi, a Virginia Tech student, was killed in Montgomery County in August with her boyfriend, a crime that has not been solved.
In the heat of the moment, Childs said, he initially didn’t realize the copter had been shot.
“I heard two loud bangs, and I wasn’t sure, you know, if it was a mechanical problem or I had actually been shot,” Childs said in an interview Friday.
Another pilot had already picked up an injured victim from the same area.
Childs was flying the state police division’s second helicopter, primarily in a search for Speight. When he heard the two bangs, Childs said, instinct took over.
“Immediately, looking at the systems, everything seemed to be OK, but I smelled something,” Childs said.
So despite his desire to return to division headquarters, not far from the scene, Childs made a quick landing in a field. Checking out the exterior of the helicopter, he noticed the fuel tank had been hit by one of the rounds.
In all, seven shots hit the chopper, damaging the underbelly, the fuel tank and one of the rotors, Childs said.
“I have never been in an aircraft, whether in the military or civilian, where the aircraft itself took that many rounds,” he said.
After he called his supervisor and the division, Childs called his wife.
“She was obviously concerned,” he said. He let her know he was safe and wasn’t going back up.
Childs said not until after he had landed did he begin to consider just how close he had come to death. Two of the bullets, he said, could easily have taken his life if they had been inches in a different direction.
Other rounds could have caused enough damage to crash the aircraft.
For Childs, especially in the wake of his daughter’s death, his family is of the utmost importance.
“That’s the last thing I needed to do — put my family through it again,” Childs said.
“I don’t know how my wife would have handled it if I was killed. I do know that it would be a horrible time,” he said, for her as well as their seven other children.
Childs has only one explanation for the number of rounds his bird took without sustaining major damage.
“Divine intervention. To me there’s no doubt,” he said.
Childs said he was concerned throughout the episode for the safety of the ground officers and tactical team members.
“What happens with them when they get shot at?”
“As police officers, we think about it more than the average person,” he said.
In the end, Childs said, he realizes he’s in a dangerous line of work. Still, incidents like Tuesday’s put a whole new perspective on his experience, he said.
“I guess this is probably the hairiest of all my emergencies that I’ve ever had flying,” he said.