By Kristina Davis
SAN DIEGO — In some ways, the 2003 firestorm that destroyed Darryl Kimball’s backcountry home was the impetus that finally landed him the job of a lifetime.
The veteran sheriff’s deputy had been trying to get on the department’s helicopter unit for years, but the circumstances never quite lined up in his favor. Discouragement was turning to utter dejection.
But with the devastating wildfires came the county’s purchase of more firefighting helicopters, hence the need for more pilots, giving Kimball the open door he needed.
That January 2005 job offer, which arrived in a phone call from the unit’s lieutenant, is one of several defining moments described in his new book, “Catch the Sky: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Police Helicopter Pilot,” which is now for sale online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Last week, after being away for two years, he returned to the unit as a sergeant.
The 337-page book spans Kimball’s childhood in a small Oklahoma town to his early days as a jail and patrol deputy to the five years spent orbiting crime scenes and conducting rescues in a helicopter.
The book was co-written and published by Allan Duffin, a Los Angeles-based writer whose past projects include a book about the history of women in policing.
Kimball’s memoir is filled with personal anecdotes, on-the-job antics, and gritty stories of drugs, gangbangers and backcountry crime.
But the underlying theme that Kimball hopes to get across to young readers and future cops is a story of how an average guy like him can find success.
“Keep trying not to listen to that part of your brain telling you you’re not good enough,” Kimball said. “It’s really common for a lot of people to sell themselves short. … Attitude has far more to do with it than anything.”
Kimball grew up one of 11 children, in one of the largest and poorest families in a town not even big enough to warrant a street sign.
College didn’t hold much allure for the C student, but he knew he wanted out of town. He followed his older Navy brother to San Diego.
It was his sister-in-law who suggested he apply for the Sheriff’s Department at the age of 21.
He spent his rookie years in the jails, and 12 years as a patrol deputy in Valley Center, where he also settled his family.
It took Kimball five years and three interviews, but he finally secured a spot on the ASTREA helicopter unit in 2005.
He spent the first 18 months as an observer, flying in the seat beside the pilot and working the tactical side of calls — from talking on the police frequencies and operating the public address system to scanning the ground for criminals and lost hikers.
It was in this role he worked some of his most exciting calls.
Like being overhead during a rolling gunbattle with a robbery suspect, who opened fire at law enforcement at nine locations before being fatally shot in Paradise Hills. Kimball used his birds-eye view at one point to warn officers that the pursuit was headed their way, giving the officers a few moments to prepare before the suspect came at them with gunfire.
“There’s a certain amount of pressure,” Kimball said of the role. “You don’t want to be the guy to lose the guy who’s been shooting at officers the last 10 minutes.”
Kimball was later sent to Civic Helicopters at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, where he trained for three months to get his commercial pilot’s license.
Learning to hover was the hardest skill to master.
“Your mind is telling you to give up, to quit. You could probably be killed doing this,” he said.
Some of his most rewarding calls have been search and rescue.
One memorable call was the rescue of a 17-year-old with severe Down syndrome, who’d run away from his school bus into a rugged mountain edging Lake San Marcos. The two-day search was beginning to seem hopeless. Kimball’s copter was doing vertical sweeps of the mountainside when a small movement caught his eye. The teen was there on a cliff, lying face down and staring at the lake.
Kimball executed a “toe-in” maneuver, resting the tips of the skids on the cliff to let out his partner, who then carried the victim down the rocks.
“He would have laid there and died,” Kimball said of the teen.
In 2008, Kimball started a blog, policehelicopterpilot.com, gaining a wide audience. Duffin, who was looking for his next project, liked the combination of police work and helicopters, and sent Kimball a mock book cover with his name on it.
“I didn’t have to think twice about it,” Kimball said of the book proposal. Writing began that weekend.
“I’ve got 20 years of writing crime reports under my belt,” he said.