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Help From Above | Law Enforcement Aviation

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 36

Photos by Richard King

Law enforcement aviation units have existed for more than 60 years, but a lot has changed over the decades. In the early days, helicopters were used primarily to give police a bird’s-eye view of traffic and special events. Only a few departments used helicopters, primarily large metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles. Today, there are countless missions that involve law enforcement aviation units across the country. What started as a means of traffic control has evolved into search and rescue, medivac, surveillance, support for patrol officers, and even a means to send live video to a police station or a communications center.

The Men Behind The Mission

In the United States, most police helicopters have a crew of two or, in some cases, three — the pilot, a Tactical Flight Officer (TFO), and a tactical or medical specialist.

The primary responsibility of the pilot is the safe operation of the aircraft. If the situation dictates, the pilot will also get involved with police duties by observing something or assisting the TFO with radio communications.

The primary responsibility of the Tactical Flight Officer is everything else that’s going on inside the helicopter. Radio communication with ground units, establishing perimeters, navigating to calls, and locating subjects with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera are just a few examples.

When a third officer is assigned, he’s usually a tactics or medical specialist, sometimes both. If needed, this flight member is generally tasked with dismounting the helicopter to accomplish tactical enforcement or medical missions. He could also serve as an emergency medical technician while the helicopter is transporting a patient. Some agencies that serve particularly rowdy, or accident prone, communities include a full-fledged paramedic as part of the crew.

No two L.E. aviation units are exactly alike, but almost all air units exist to support the guys on the ground. Additionally, an air unit can provide faster-than-normal response times to high-priority calls. They can paint the picture of what’s happening at a complex call from a bird’s-eye view for responding units to have a better plan upon their arrival. Air units are also synonymous with car chases and can remove almost all risk by calling the chase from the air rather than a potentially dangerous vehicle pursuit.

Hot Spots and Bright Lights

The majority of law enforcement helicopters are equipped with a FLIR camera. These cameras can’t see through walls or glass, but they’re extremely effective in area searches.

helicopter night vision gimbal

People raised on Hollywood movies can’t understand why FLIR can’t see through objects, especially glass. Brian Spillane from FLIR Systems explains, “The wavelength of electromagnetic energy doesn’t penetrate glass the way visible light can. Because of this, the sensor is unable to detect it.”

In the past, heat sources were small white blobs, or even dots on the screen. Older camera technology wouldn’t allow the TFO to determine if a heat source was a piece of discarded concrete from a construction crew or a deer. The latest FLIR camera systems provide enough detail for the TFO to describe the subject’s physical features and clothing. This new technology comes at a cost, though. A well-outfitted FLIR unit can cost upward of $500,000.

Gwinnett County Police Department Corporal Richard King, a former K9 handler turned pilot, attests to the technological advancements that provide ground units with more efficiency and safety.

“I remember being on numerous K9 tracks,” King said. “Our air unit would locate a target they’d want us to check out. More often than not, those heat sources were big rocks, manhole covers, or some form of wildlife.”

The cockpit of today’s law enforcement air unit is as much a surveillance station as it is an aviation control deck.

The cockpit of today’s law enforcement air unit is as much a surveillance station as it is an aviation control deck.

Now King is the one in the air directing those K9 units to check heat sources. King said, “With the higher resolution in newer FLIR cameras, I’m able to determine if the heat source is a deer or a suspect and not waste a handler’s time while they’re on a track. I’m also able to see if the suspect has a weapon, or if he’s trying to conceal himself in some instances.”

King recounted a call where his unit was searching for an elderly Alzheimer’s patient with a FLIR 380HDC. “It was past midnight, and temperatures were just above freezing. We had a very thick tree cover, and after searching for nearly two hours, we finally located the victim next to a chain-link fence between a junkyard and a heavily wooded area. There wasn’t much temperature contrast in the area where the victim was, but we were able to adjust the camera and discern her from the other heat sources around her. Without a newer camera with more resolution and a wider range of temperature adjustment, we wouldn’t have been able to find her.”

In addition to FLIR, police helicopters are typically equipped with a high-power white light. A standard searchlight is typically between 30- and 40-million candlepower, providing both a wide search beam and very tight spotlight. It’s an effective tool during searches and helps the TFO communicate with officers on the ground — “See the house I have my light on? The suspect is behind the house west of that.”

Two other pieces of equipment found in most aircraft are gyro-stabilized binoculars and night vision goggles. The combination of searchlights, NVGs, FLIR, and a trained crew with good communication gives ground officers a huge tactical advantage.
Command and Control

Helicopters aren’t just flying flashlights anymore; they’re able to provide real-time observation and imagery during ongoing incidents, beaming live, or near-live, video down to incident command posts and even to individual patrols.

Secure airborne video transmission systems can cost more than $400,000 for a capable helo-mounted camera, avionics, and the necessary ground station. Add another $25,000 to $30,000 for a man portable viewer that looks something like a Panasonic Toughbook, and you’ve the ability to give on-scene commanders near real-time intelligence. This capability is useful while policing large protests, riots, large fires, or other sizable catastrophes, especially those that demand interagency coordination.

TV stations have been using similar systems for years, but the practice is growing in law enforcement as agencies and municipalities justify the expense of air units by providing shared services to other agencies. A prime example is the way an LE air unit might be tasked to provide live imagery to a firefighting command post. A live feed enables commanders to make decisions and allocate resources more effectively.

A dedicated airborne video transmission system is spendy, but it’s the only thing that’ll work when the bottom falls out of the grid, say, following a hurricane. But these expensive systems aren’t the only means of supplying air to ground video. King says aircrews have been getting down and dirty by plugging cellular dongles into their onboard computers and broadcasting directly to officers on the ground. It’s not secure, connectivity is spotty, and you’re dependent on commercial video chat applications, but it can get the job done in a non-mission-critical situation.

Talking to the Ground

Ground officers believe the aircrew’s elevated position allows them to see everything. That assumption isn’t always true and can lead to confusion. When the TFO has eyes on a suspect during a chase, numerous obstacles block the TFO’s view of the suspect. Heavy tree cover, covered parking garages, and other barriers are just a few examples. There are times, however, when a sharp-eyed TFO makes life much safer for ground units. John Chapman, an officer in Northern California, recalls an incident during a foot pursuit.

“I was in a foot pursuit with a stolen vehicle suspect and was falling behind,” says Chapman. “He was running my ass ragged, jumping fences. I chased him into one of those storage unit places and lost sight of him. As I slowed down to begin searching for him, I heard our air unit overhead. They circled the storage units while I searched on the ground, alone. As I approached a corner of one of the buildings I heard over the radio, ‘Ground unit on foot, STOP.’ I stopped, and the TFO then told me, ‘Your suspect is crouching in the door of a unit about 20 feet around that corner.’”

The airborne perch of the tactical flight officer offers an invaluable, and often lifesaving perspective to units on the ground.

The airborne perch of the tactical flight officer offers an invaluable, and often lifesaving perspective to units on the ground.

This allowed Chapman to move to a better position and surprise the suspect. The TFO also worked with arriving ground units to walk them onto Chapman’s location, subduing the suspect. Chapman says a Lorcin .25 auto was on the ground in the door where the suspect was crouched. He says, “The air unit saved that dude’s life.”

Tactical Transport

Depending on the size of the helicopter, agencies run specialized missions with SWAT teams. Transporting SWAT personnel sounds simple enough, but working with helicopters makes everything riskier. Aside from the danger of guys running into invisible tail rotors, there are other challenges.

Communication is tough because of noise in and around the helicopter. Headsets are pretty much mandatory for the SWAT passengers. Some guys plug directly into the helicopter’s intercom system, and some run comms through handheld radios. Using radios lets the operators communicate seamlessly with the aircrew before entering and after exiting the aircraft. Hand signals are also fairly effective; at least, they beat screaming.

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division and SWAT train and run what’s called SWAT Insertion Procedure or SIP. Four SWAT officers step onto the skids of a helicopter, attach themselves to safety straps, and fly to a rooftop where they’re dropped off. Hand signals are used extensively on SIP and things are carefully choreographed that something so slight as a pilot’s head nod is used to communicate that it’s safe for officers to mount the skids.

CLONE OUT "Gwinnett County” and “N1605k” and “N5189k” if visible on aircraft.

Rifles in the Sky

In 2017, LAPD patrol officers responded to a house burglary in progress. Although the occupant of the home escaped, the suspect was still in the home with access to multiple firearms. The situation turned into a barricaded suspect call out for SWAT officers and an air unit. During the call the suspect shot at the responding officers.

“Because of the location of the house,” said SWAT officer Bobby Gallegos, Jr., “SWAT requested the airborne platform shooting technique in case the suspect attempted to flee into an open area from the rear.”

Gallegos and another SWAT officer mounted the outside bench seats of the aircraft. The suspect came out the rear firing at officers and ran into the open. The helicopter provided a platform from which the airborne officers could successfully end the threat to surrounding officers and civilians.

Addressing the evolution of airborne platform shooting tactics, Gallegos says, “This tactic would probably not have been possible a decade ago. As violence against law enforcement [officers] and terrorism has increased, the department understands the need for this technique and supports the training.”

Although rarely used, law enforcement’s techniques for the application of lethal force from the air continue to evolve. JC Corbett, a former TFO with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, says one of the most important changes in the last decade is the practice of training TFOs as shooters. In San Bernardino, says Corbett, TFOs are trained to transition from an observer role to a shooter role, so the on-scene aircraft doesn’t need to break contact and waste time picking up a specially trained SWAT officer if the situation calls for an aerial engagement.

At the tactical level, Hollywood’s portrayal of shooting aloft is far from actual reality.  Engagement distances by heliborne snipers are generally in the scores of yards, says Corbett. “Some of the long-gun guys can do OK at 150 yards from a stable hover, but that all depends on your pilot.”

One of the accepted missions of heliborne gunnery is disabling vehicles. It used to be easier, says Corbett, when dumb engines could be slowed or stopped by targeting key engine components, such as the alternator, radiator, or big hoses. But as engines become smarter, he says, “You’re trying to disable as much as you can in the engine compartment because the electronics can now compensate for the damage.”

Another area of evolution in aerial platform shooting has been the move to red-dots from magnified optics, as heliborne shooters realized a wider field of view is more valuable than a magnified view when the shooter, aircraft, and target are all moving.

helicopter rope

My Department Needs a Helicopter

Most officers want a helicopter available to them 24/7. The largest obstacle is budget. Any type of aircraft supporting patrol operations will be extremely expensive. The purchase of a helicopter and support equipment can entail several million dollars, but the ongoing costs of maintaining and training an air unit requires millions more dollars each year.

With advancements in technology, law enforcement aviation has come a long way over the past several decades. While helicopter operations are expensive, they’re an invaluable resource in highly populated areas where threats to the community require fast, precise, and safe resolution. There’s nothing that can compare to an overhead partner, and the tech and techniques that make the relationship more effective continue to evolve.


About the Author
Jack H. Schonely is a retired police officer who worked on the front lines of law enforcement for 36 years. In his 31 years as a Los Angeles Police Officer he worked a wide variety of positions including patrol, K-9 handler, Tactical Flight Officer, and Command Pilot. He currently teaches tactical classes and is the author of the book Apprehending Fleeing Suspects.

air support


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