Two veteran San Francisco police officers, Inspector Kirk B. Brookbush and Officer James F. Dougherty, died Tuesday, Jan. 11, in the crash of a department helicopter in a plowed field near the small farming community of Crows Landing.
The aircraft, on a routine flight from a maintenance check at the Porterville Airport in Tulare County back to San Francisco, crashed sometime after 9 p.m. when Federal Aviation Administration officials at Stockton Airport lost radio and radar contact with the Bell Jet Ranger OH-58 five-seat chopper.
There was no indication what caused the helicopter to go down. The National Weather Service said the weather at the time of last contact was rainy and windy with low ceilings. SFPD Capt. Mike Yalon described the weather as flyable, but theorized that the pilot might have attempted to set the aircraft down because of inclement weather.
Stanislaus County authorities said the pilot radioed the Stockton Airport tower that he was flying beneath 1,000 feet because of visibility problems just before contact was lost.
Myron Larson, Stanislaus County sheriff’s Commander, said a preliminary investigation showed that the helicopter crashed at high speed, going in at a low angle.
A KGO-Radio helicopter that had been dispatched to cover the accident spotted the wreckage at 7:20 a.m. Wednesday. The wreckage was strewn over a plowed field 150 yards in length just south of Crows Landing. A farmer also reported spotting the wreckage that morning.
The helicopter crash was the second in less than four months involving Bay Area police helicopters. In late October, a San Jose police helicopter crashed onto a busy San Jose street, killing Officer Desmond J. Casey and an aircraft mechanic.
Only one other San Francisco officer, Charles Lagosa, has died in a helicopter crash. His aircraft dropped into Lake Merced on Feb. 11, 1971. The crash led to the grounding of the department’s small fleet until recent years.
The helicopter, piloted by Brookbush, had gone to Porterville for routine maintenance and to return a floodlight borrowed for the New Year’s celebration in San Francisco. Brookbush and Dougherty flew to Porterville Monday and decided to stay overnight because of bad weather. They departed Porterville between 4 and 6 p.m. Tuesday.
California Highway Patrol Officer Jim Harris reported that the last radio contact with Brookbush was shortly after 9 p.m. At the same time, controllers at Stockton approach radar stated that the helicopter vanished off their radar screens.
San Francisco Police Department owns four Bell helicopters, using two for air operations and two for spare parts. They were given to the department by the Defense Department three years ago. They copters are not used for daily patrols or pursuits but are available as emergency backup for special operations and search and rescue operations.
The department had two helicopters, staffed with 11 officers, three decades ago, but they were grounded after the Lake Merced fatal crash. There also were widespread civilian complaints about the noise of the aircraft as they flew over the city.
Randy Furtick, vice president of Aircraft and Helicopter Maintenance Inc. of Porterville said the helicopter had routine maintenance done on it Monday afternoon, a service performed on the aircraft after 50 hours of flying.
Furtick stated, “We don’t know what happened at this point in time. There is speculation everywhere. We don’t know, other than the passing of two good friends.”
Police Chief Fred Lau, who grounded the Police Department’s helicopters after the crash, said he wanted to continue the chopper program in the fallen officers’ honor. He continued, “Both officers will be deeply missed.”
Thousands of law enforcement personnel gathered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco for the double funeral for Brookbush and Dougherty on Tuesday, Jan. 18. Officers came from throughout the nation with their badges crossed with black tape to join in mourning for their “brothers in arms.” Chief Lau’s speech to the assembled mourners was preceded by comments from Mayor Willie Brown and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Brow told the audience, “They were two fine, dedicated, talented officers. It is always difficult to say goodbye to a fallen soldier, a fallen comrade.” Cmdr. Heather Fong, Brookbush’s and Dougherty’s boss, who heads the air unit, brought tears to the eyes of many when she referred to the downed officers as “two angels looking over the shoulders” of San Francisco police officers.
She continued while speaking of the crash in foul weather, “Somewhere between heaven and Earth, God’s voice called out and the two angels fell.” Most of the speakers at the overflow double funeral for the two officers focused on the glowing police achievements of the two men.
Bill Vanderber, who remembered Brookbush as a teacher, friend and a mentor in the air, told the assembly that he shared a passion with him: flying. He stated that he had taught him how to pilot an aircraft and together they explored the skies above Northern California in a small plane and, later, a helicopter. They also shared a goofy sense of humor, and Vanderber was always entertained by Brookbush’s jokes and storytelling.
He continued in a tribute punctuated by his own tears, “Kirk was the best. He was my instructor, my best friend and an outstanding father” to his son Andy. Kirk was the best.”
Inspector Pam Fitzgerald-Wermes said she was inspired by Brookbush’s “exuberance” and “contagious excitement.” She heard so many stories about his love of the air that she decided to take flying lessons.
“I know he’s looking down on us right now,” she stated. “Kirk, we will honor you and there will never be another like you.”
Paul Kang, Dougherty’s friend, said that through friendliness and infinite patience, gradually grew to become a beloved father figure. “He was always there for us when we needed him. He was always there to help us and teach us. He was great for our family.”
Kang told the mourners that he and his brother Chon came to see Dougherty as a father figure in the 10 years since the fallen officer met their mother. He continued, “You don’t really know what you have until you lose it.”
The weather in The City on the morning of the funeral was similar to that in the Central Valley they night they died – scattered showers, drizzle and low clouds.
Inspector/Pilot Kirk Bradley Brookbush
After active duty in Vietnam, Brookbush served in a Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment (Airborne), and one year with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. He joined the San Francisco Police Department on September 11, 1972. His career took him through rotations at four different police stations, the Department Specialist Team (1985-1988), the Tactical Unit (1988-1990), the Crime Scene Investigations Unit (1994-1999), and the Air Support Unit to which he was assigned in August 1999. He was promoted to the rank of Inspector last year.
Brookbush, the department’s only chopper pilot since he took over in October, also served as a fixed-wing pilot with the 82nd Airborne Division during the Vietnam War. He was well known for making parachute jumps into Candlestick Park before Giants and 49er games.
Chief Lau said that Brookbush’s flight instructor described him as one of the most safety-minded and conscientious pilots he’s ever trained. He was awarded a gold medal, the department’s highest award, in 1980 after capturing a man who shot his partner.
Brookbush, who was 49 years old, brought enthusiasm and expertise to each of his assignments, along with a methodical and conscientious approach to his work that made him extremely valuable to the Department. He was an avid and experienced aviator, licensed to fly several different types of planes and helicopters.
During his 27 years in the Department, he earned a Gold Medal of Valor, three Police Commission Commendations, and 65 Captain’s Commendations. Outgoing and personable, he was particularly popular with the public he served; he received 68 Citizen Complimentary letters.
His wife Suzanne and his son Andrew survive Brookbush. They lived in Hayward, not far from the airport where he kept his small plane.
Officer/Mechanic James Francis Dougherty
Jim Dougherty began his police career at Taraval Station May 17, 1971 after serving four years in the U.S. Air Force, from 1963 to 1967, and after working for two years (1969 – 1971), as an aircraft mechanic for United Airlines.
He was later assigned to the Traffic Accident Investigation Bureau (1977-1980), where his mechanical knowledge was useful in analyzing accident scenes. He served at Park and Ingleside stations, and returned to Taraval Station in April 1996. He served the Omi Community as the Day Watch “6 Car.”
Dougherty, quiet and unassuming, his dedication to service in his 28 years with the Department yielded him one Police Commission Commendation, 52 Captain’s Commendations, and 41 Citizen Complimentary letters.
The Air Support Unit often utilized his expertise as a certified aircraft mechanic. He was also an accomplished fixed wing pilot.
His three children: Jeffrey, Bridget, and Christopher: and his companion, Sun Kang; and her sons, Chon and Paul Kang, survive the 56-year-old Dougherty. Family trust funds have been established for Brookbush and Dougherty. Persons wishing to contribute are asked to contact the San Francisco Police Department Credit Union, 2550 Irving Street, San Francisco, CA 94122 or call (415) 564-3800. The Kirk Brookbush Memorial Fund is trust identification number 1355139; the James Dougherty Memorial Fund is trust identification number 1355138. Credit Union staff will assist contributors who elect to have a single donation divided between the two trusts.