column: High-speed chase results in unlikely lesson learned
We spotted the stolen Lincoln Towne Car northbound on Pontiac Trail. We got close enough to confirm the plate and that was too close for the professional crook driving it—the chase was on. We were heading out of the city, onto some gravel roads and unbeknownst to us into our pre-launch sequence.
That day Hammer and I drove a brand new Chevrolet Caprice Classic that had just come into the fleet. Unit 48 had less than 800 miles on it. We were told the engine in #48 was actually a Corvette engine. This car’s suspension was tight, it was fast and we could not have asked for a better police car in the late 1980’s.
We were used to Dodge Diplomats that were terrible in chases or any kind of high-speed driving. The problem with them was that if you tried to brake and steer—like making quick turns on city streets—the engine would stall. Those Diplomats stalled more frequently if the air conditioning was on.
Diplomat “death stalls” set an officer up for all kinds of excitement. First of all the power steering and brakes were lost. That made the car difficult to handle, but still controllable with two hands on the wheel—which meant dropping your radio microphone if you were alone.
Next as you shifted into neutral to restart the flamed-out rolling brick, you lost your emergency lights, siren and most importantly your police radio. A lot of information can be lost in a chase or responding to a crime in progress when the radio goes dead for 4-5 seconds—spelled E-T-E-R-N-I-T-Y — in an emergency response.
Lastly it takes a while to build up speed. In the meantime, the crook fleeing has turned another corner, which brings us back to the Diplomat’s Achilles’s Heel—again.
Chasing the stolen Lincoln, Hammer and I were flying about 90 miles an hour in our new Chevy on a gravel road with farmland on both sides. Up ahead I could see a stop sign. That worried me about the cross traffic. Thieves running from the police seldom slow at intersections and which cause tragedies in high-speed police chases.
When I saw that the stop sign was at a railroad crossing and not an intersection, I was glad and back on the accelerator, especially when I saw no trains coming from either direction. We were closing in on the Lincoln.
We were pretty close to the crossing. I was hard on the throttle when Hammer yelled, “WATCH OUT! THAT’S AN ELEVATED ..” If he got out “railroad crossing” to finish his sentence it was lost in the sights and sounds that froze time in the next instant.
Several things happened within split seconds of each other.
First the Lincoln hit the elevated railroad crossing and launched into the air. The car flew. From its new angle we could suddenly see the top of the roof as it continued to climb. It was an amazing sight and a snapshot that is still captured in my memory.
Then we hit the same launch ramp that the late Evil Knievel would have appreciated. Unit 48 was airborne—proving for those less than supportive of the police that for an instant “pigs” could fly.
Now all those old shows like The Dukes of Hazzard or action movies they make car-flying look pretty easy. That is not the case.
First of all when the wheels leave the ground and have no friction, the engine begins to over-rev. This I was used to from jumping wakes in the family speedboat—sorry dad. I took my foot off the gas. All time stood still and it seemed silent as we climbed to peak altitude. I was clutching the steering wheel while Hammer must have had a death grip on the passenger side spotlight handle and his seat or the dash.
Unit 48 kept soaring. It seemed like an eternity. I was willing the car down, because it was not near as much fun as it looked in the movies. The next day I cautioned the officers in briefing, “Remember, when your car is in midair, it does no good to pump your brakes.” I had not however touched the brakes while we were airborne.
In fact as I saw the stolen Lincoln land and apparently lock its brakes and crash HARD into large oak tree off the left shoulder, I made a quick mental note to disregard braking. The Lincoln had landed, locked the brakes, slid off the “crown”—the middle of a properly grated gravel road that promotes drainage to each side—hit some wet grass and piled into the tree.
When we landed, I actually hit the accelerator again until Unit 48 settled and then I eased on the brakes. I wound up backing to the crash site.
The Lincoln was destroyed. The only sheet metal that was not dented was the rear passenger side door. Even the trunk deck had come unlatched. One wheel cover rolled 150 feet down the road. The floor had buckled under the driver, so it was even with the top of the lower seat.
The Lincoln’s driver was a pro and had been seat-belted, otherwise he would have been dead. He was shaken up but got out of the car and tried to run before being tackled, shackled and transported downtown.
In retrospect and by today’s standards the chase was unsafe, but we caught the car thief that day. Unit 48 was fully examined by mechanics and there was not a scratch on it—that was my all time favorite police car!
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.