With synchronized rhythm, Don Johnston wheeled himself across the dark airfield, sprinkled with electric lights, to a waiting helicopter on a recent night.
With outstretched hands he grabbed the door, lifted himself out of his wheelchair and rested his body against the aircraft. Then he wiggled his way into the leather seat. With his right hand, he scooped up his right leg, then his left, and settled into the cockpit.
Johnston, 39, is an El Monte police officer who was left paralyzed from the waist down nearly four years ago after being shot while on duty. He recently went back to work as a patrol officer--not on the streets in the familiar black-and-white, but above it all.
“Once I get in that helicopter, going on patrol, I am in a position where my legs are not needed,” Johnston said. “I don’t feel inferior to anyone because of my injury. I have no limitations. I am everybody’s equal,” he declared.
In a split second, one man’s act shattered the officer’s career. But later, with the backing of Police Chief Wayne Clayton, the city gave him a new challenge.
Johnston, the observer in the city’s helicopter patrol program, is believed to be the first paraplegic to perform such duty in Southern California, said Sgt. Scott Coleman of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau.
Flying at an average 1,000 feet above the ground, Johnston has a bird’s-eye view of El Monte. His main job is to organize and direct ground units. The aircraft, based at El Monte Airport, can be anywhere in the 10-square-mile city in less than 30 seconds, five times faster than officers in patrol cars.
“I feel like RoboCop up there,” said Johnston, a five-year veteran of the force. “I can get to places so fast and get to see things so much better.”
Then he got a radio call and whipped out his Thomas Guide.
“There are no street signs,” the officer quipped.
But Johnston can still find his way around town, using as reference points well-known landmarks--and not-so-well-known ones, such as his favorite taco stand.
Counting streets doesn’t always work, he said.
“One time I shined the spotlight on a street and the officers on the ground said over the radio, ‘Don, do you realize that you are one street away?’ ” he said with a slight chuckle.
In training for his new assignment, Johnston made copies of a city map, blotted out all the street names and tried to recall them by their locations and shapes.
“I can see the imprint of the shadow of the map on his face,” said his wife, Ruth, 28. “Just to see him fly and be as excited as he is makes up for all our troubles,” she added. “Even though I don’t get to see him as often now that he works weekends, I couldn’t be happier.”
Although Johnston is excited about his new assignment, he’s always under control, said Bob Muse, a civilian pilot who has been the officer’s partner for more than six months.
“I get really excited when we get a call (about) a man with a gun,” Muse said. “But Don would say, ‘We come in high and fast. Once we get established and get ground units, then we will come down low.’ ”
It was an unlikely pairing, a commercial pilot and a police officer, but the two have hit it off.
“We need to work as a team,” Muse said. “I have to be able to read Don’s hand signals and body language. Other people can give you good signals, but you still won’t be able to tell what they are trying to say. It can be frustrating.”
Johnston took to the air well, said Muse, who was worried because the nature of the work calls for aggressive flying--short stops and sharp turns that can make some people feel queasy.
“Don didn’t get sick. Not even once,” the pilot said. “That was a relief.”
The pressure to succeed is great, given that this is a new project and that its renewal next year will depend largely on the performance of Johnston, who will combine his observer’s job with personnel work. The City Council in March voted to use $78,000 seized from drug busts to pay for the program. After a two-month trial run that began in June and extended through September, the council approved a plan to increase the flying time from three hours a week to 10.
After the Jan. 29, 1990, shooting, Johnston, the father of a 17-year-old son from a previous marriage, chose not to retire. Instead, he returned to work a year later as a detective specializing in missing children. The following year he transferred to the training office and was placed in charge of doing background checks on new hires. When the helicopter observer job opened up, Johnston applied immediately.
“How often does a cop in a wheelchair ever get a chance to be in patrol again?” he said. “It doesn’t happen. . . . I worked hard to become a cop and to have that suddenly ripped away from me, it’s hard to accept.”
The day he was shot, Johnston had responded to what was a routine call to investigate a forgery attempt at a Security Pacific Bank office. The officer entered the bank’s foyer, where he caught the gaze of a man holding a customer at gunpoint. No words were exchanged. As Johnston pushed the customer away, the gunman opened fire.
The assailant, later identified as Nguyen Lu, fired three shots, one of which struck Johnston in the neck. Lu later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. In July, 1992, he hanged himself in his cell.
When Johnston heard that Nguyen had committed suicide, the officer was initially excited. But that feeling changed to sadness.
“Two people from worlds apart, all of a sudden their lives crossed, and it has such a tragic result,” he said. “I am in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. He’s dead.”