Vietnam veteran Wood joined police force to fly Officers remember fallen colleague

November 06, 1998|By Peter Hermann and Lisa Respers | Peter Hermann and Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Barry W. Wood didn't join the Baltimore Police Department to cruise city streets. He joined to fly over them.

Coming straight from the battlefields of Vietnam, the then 23-year-old came to Baltimore less than a month after he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1971 -- part of a bold experiment for building a police helicopter unit.

Unlike other cities that took street officers and trained them to fly, Baltimore sought battle-hardened pilots and trained them to be police officers.

"When we started, we said, 'Why not get the best pilots available?' " said Frederick Police Chief Regis Raffensberger, who started the city chopper unit known as "Foxtrot" and made Wood one of his first hires.

Wood, a 27-year veteran, died Wednesday when his two-seat Schweizer crashed at the B&O Railroad Museum.

"His manner epitomized professional law enforcement and aviation," said Raffensberger, who left the city department in 1992.

Wood, 50, was the second city officer to be killed in five days and the 99th to die in the line of duty since the department was formed in 1870.

The deaths -- the other from a car accident -- have rocked the department's 3,200 officers.

The department's aviation unit is a small group of officers who work at Martin State Airport in Middle River, where they are well-known to other aviators, including flight officers from Baltimore County.

Pilots gathered Wednesday evening at the wreckage that had been moved to the airport and remembered their fallen colleague. "We were in tears," said Roy Taylor, a former flight officer for Baltimore County who flies the news helicopter for WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

"Barry did what he loved to do," Taylor said. "He loved to fly."

Wood had lived with his wife, Martha, in Abingdon, a small community south of Aberdeen in Harford County. Friends said the couple was devoted to each other and recently went on a romantic getaway to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Yesterday, neighbors drove by the couple's neatly kept house, leaves scattered in the front yard. "If he was home right now, he'd be cleaning up those leaves and working on one of his projects," said next-door neighbor Rick Stelmack. "He was just such a fantastic guy and his whole life was work, his wife and taking care of his home."

Wood was born in Taunton, Mass., and graduated from a high school in Manassas, Va., in 1966. He attended Northern Virginia Community College for a year before going to Army Helicopter School at Fort Rucker, Ala.

He served in Vietnam for three years, and he once safely landed a Huey packed with soldiers after another helicopter flew too close and clipped off his landing gear. He was honorably discharged from the Army on April 1, 1971, and joined the city police force 26 days later.

Wood spent more than 42,000 hours flying over Baltimore in his quarter-century of chasing stolen cars and helping officers find elusive suspects. He once piloted one of the choppers from Los Angeles, where the aircraft were made, to Baltimore, a seven-day trip.

"It's a very sad day here at the airport," said Jake West, manager of Martin State.

West said it appeared as if Wood maneuvered his crippled aircraft away from homes and tried to crash-land in the parking lot of the museum. "He tried to make a clearance and he couldn't make it," he said.

Stelmack said he last saw his neighbor the morning of the crash, leaving for work with his partner, Officer Mark A. Keller, 43, who was seriously injured in the accident.

"He's the kind of guy who would have tried to land that chopper in such a way that would have saved his partner even if it meant he got hurt," Stelmack said. "He's that kind of man."

Funeral plans were incomplete as of yesterday.

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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