All day Thursday, Durango was abuzz with speculation about a mysterious helicopter that woke many residents early Thursday when it reportedly flew in a grid maneuver 300 feet above downtown Durango just after 3 a.m.
The mystery was solved Thursday afternoon when New Mexico’s San Juan County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jacob Sanchez confirmed that the agency dispatched the helicopter to assist Durango Police Department with a search-and-rescue operation after a 28-year-old woman reportedly went missing while tubing the Animas River at 2 a.m. with her roommate.
“Alcohol was involved,” said Durango Police Department spokesman Ray Shupe.
The pair had put their tubes in the river at 500 Animas Drive and had planned to take out at 32nd Street. But along the way, Shupe said, they diverged, with one roommate wanting to go home while the other “still wanted to mess around for a little while.”
The roommate called police about an hour after she had last spotted her tubing partner, “So we were an hour behind the curve,” Shupe said.
After police searched the river banks and still couldn’t locate the missing woman, a sergeant asked San Juan County Sheriff’s Office to deploy one of its FLIR helicopters – which uses infrared technology to read heat signatures – to conduct a sweep over the riverbanks.
The search’s conclusion was happy: In the end, DPD officers found the young woman safely walking home up Florida Road to her apartment.
But in the hours since DPD closed the case, the helicopter’s early-morning expedition had proved something of a sensation among the Durango residents it awoke. Early on Thursday morning, residents started contacting The Durango Herald to share their accounts of the helicopter, which did not use a spotlight, and hypothesize about its owner and purpose.
As local law-enforcement agencies confirmed they did not have any involvement with the helicopter, the enigma grew murkier.
Thursday morning, Director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management Butch Knowlton told the Herald he didn’t know anything about its mission, owners or pilots. La Plata County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dan Bender said the same, as did Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base’s public-affairs officer Othana Zuch.
Henry Frautschy, who has been a private pilot since 1975, was sleeping at his sister’s house on East Park Avenue when the helicopter racket roused him around 2:30 a.m. He said it looked like “a smaller civilian-size helicopter,” but “two things stood out: I never saw a searchlight, but it did have his landing lights on,” and it was flying very low to the ground.
The conjecture, while diverting, might have been avoided by going to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page. As of 4 a.m., it reported its involvement in the rescue mission, saying: “The Air Support Unit would like to thank the citizens of Durango for your patience tonight.”
[email protected] Herald Staff Writer Ann Butler contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story said that Henry Frautschy has worked as a private pilot since 1975. He works in the aviation industry and has had a Federal Aviation Administration private pilot certificate since 1975.