The rotor wash of the gray and blue Bell Jet Ranger whips the treetops as the helicopter's pilot flies over a recently cut pine plantation looking for Alabama's top cash crop.
I'm going to put them just outside your window, but I'm not going to tell you where they are, Mike Manley, an Alabama Department of Public Safety pilot, told an observer sitting in the front left hand seat of the chopper. Tell me when you think you have them.
The ride-along visitor spots three marijuana plants about 20 feet below.
You see that color? Manley asks over the earphones. Once you get used to looking for that color, dope is easy to find.
The Alabama Marijuana Eradication program uses helicopters, both state and Alabama National Guard aircraft, to find pot plants.
Pilots then call in ground teams of law enforcement officers to seize the illegal weed.
Recently, they were working east-central Alabama with Manley and a Guard helicopter working Chambers County, which borders Georgia.
It's the height of the marijuana growing season, which means the teams will be flying hot and heavy now until the first frost in the fall, Cpl. Robert Saffold of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation said.
Marijuana is the No. 1 cash crop in the state, he said. Put cotton, corn and the other crops together and it won't touch marijuana.
The street value of a single plant at maturity is about $2,000, he said.
Pilots and spotters key on locations over actual plants, places where marijuana is likely to be grown.
When they find a hotspot, pilots put the helicopters in a sharp corkscrew turn to lose what little altitude they have, often going below tree-top level. They crisscross the patch of ground several times, seemingly looking in every nook and cranny.
It's not uncommon for people to leave their homes to look up with hand-shielded eyes to try and spot the source of the whump-whump-whumping of the prowling helicopter.
Marijuana isn't the only thing the pilots find. Often they surprise nude women sunbathing around rural swimming pools.
I've found liquor stills, stolen property, you name it, Manley said. A few months ago I found several hundred dollars in stolen equipment.
I was flying over some woods and found a bunch of equipment parked together, some of it on lowboy trailers. It just didn't look right. We called the local sheriff's office and they went out and confirmed it was stolen property.
And it's not always the boondocks where they find dope.
We were chasing a bad guy in downtown Birmingham recently, he said. I flew over a couple of vacant lots and right under me I spotted some plants. We went back and got them after we caught the bad guy.
The whirly birds rarely get above about 300 feet.
If you see a tower or another aircraft that you think I don't see, key the mike and let me know, Manley told the observer.
Just say 'Tower at 2 o'clock.' And if you feel like you're getting sick, let me know and I'll set us down as quick as possible. If you make a mess, it's your job to clean it up.
There were no emergency landings on this trip.
The helicopters fly over each of the 67 counties in the state during a season. Some hotspots are searched several times a year, Saffold said.
Northeast Alabama, with its mountainous terrain, is usually the leader in marijuana production.
The numbers go up and down, but northeast Alabama is the leader year in and year out, he said.
It's very difficult to find marijuana in those valleys, you just about have to fly right over the plants and look down at the right time to spot it.
You may have one county get real hot for a year or two. We know we put the right people in jail when all of a sudden we quit finding plants in a county that has been productive for a number of years.
Growers spare no effort attending their clandestine crop. Elaborate irrigation systems are the norm. In 2009, officers started finding Mexican dope and the number of plants seized spiked over the previous year's takes.
Under the new plan, growers, mostly Hispanics, camp out around the plots to make sure the plants are taken care of, Saffold said.
It's the same way they grow big dope in California, he said. The growers will dig out holes in banks for a place to sleep.
They have other people drop off food and supplies in a location nearby so they can stay in the woods with the plants until harvest time.
We've chased several people on Mexican dope fields, but we haven't caught that many.
Pot Numbers Slide?
The eradication effort began in 1982 and is funded through Drug Enforcement Administration grants using money seized in drug forfeitures.
That means taxpayers don't foot the bill. Since the late 1990s, DPS figures show the number of plants found have usually decreased each year.
Fewer plants found in the woods, called outside grow doesn't mean marijuana isn't being grown here, Autauga County Sheriff Herbie Johnson said. The success of the eradication program has led to more house dope.
We are finding more and more marijuana being grown inside, he said. The days of finding several thousand plants growing in one patch are pretty much over. Finding those big patches was common before we started flying.
Now it's more common that if we find plants outside, there may be six or seven in that one spot. Finding a dozen or more plants in the same place is rare now.
Law enforcement recently has been seeing more and more dope coming up from Mexico, squeezing out the home-grown product, Elmore County Sheriff Bill Franklin said.
Methamphetamine production also has cut into local pot production, he added.
You can put a shake and bake meth lab in a plastic box, he said. Plus people get on the Internet and find information on making meth.
They have no idea how dangerous it is mixing volatile components used in making meth.
Pot is still being used, and authorities still need to try to prevent as much marijuana as possible from hitting the street, Johnson said.
For most people, marijuana is the first drug they try, he said.
Most people who have never used drugs won't wake up tomorrow morning and say to themselves I think I'll try some crystal meth. You have a lot of young people, high school aged, and even in junior high, using marijuana.
It's what gets them started using drugs. That alone is reason enough to go after pot.
The aerial program has been successful, and needs to continue, Montgomery County Sheriff D.T. Marshall said. It's rare to find plants when the choppers visit Montgomery County, he added.
We like it that way, he said. The pilots work hard to find marijuana when they are here. Just the knowledge that we do fly the county keeps growers from planting outside on a large scale.
But if we stopped flying, it wouldn't take a year for our numbers to get back up to where they were in the early days. Then you would find plots with thousands of plants again. Using the helicopters is a good deterrent.
The pilots and officers involved know the score, Saffold said.
If the tally shows we found 60,000 plants last year, that means we didn't find that many or double that amount, he said.
We have to fly over them to find them. The dope growers are planting in more and more heavily wooded areas now. The plants may not grow as well, but they are much harder to find.
BY MARTY RONEY
JULY 6, 2010