Photo: Amaury Murgado.
Editor's Note: View our photo gallery, "Police Helicopters," to see several of the more commonly used copters by law enforcement agencies.
Although many agencies are trying cost-cutting alternatives, it's been my experience as a field supervisor that there is no substitute for a helicopter in the air with a well-trained flight crew. But it is imperative that the coordination between ground and air units be problem free in order to make it work.
A typical helicopter flight crew consists of a pilot and a tactical flight officer (TFO). The pilot is responsible for the safe operation of the helicopter. The TFO is responsible for the law enforcement mission. The person that deals with units on the ground is the TFO.
When I started out as a part-time flight observer in a cross-training program in the early '90s, the term TFO didn't exist. As the flight observer, I helped the pilot look out for obstructions, other flying aircraft, and I looked for the bad guy. I also managed the radio and the spotlight. Night work was a hit-and-miss proposition, as the controls are never as responsive as you'd like.
Fast forward to today, and the TFO's responsibilities have increased substantially. Sure, the TFO still has to watch out for obstructions, manage the radio, and work the spotlight. However, a TFO also has to work the day/night camera, be familiar with thermal imagery, work some type of aero computer (GPS/mapping), and manage a flight recorder that documents the flight for court purposes.
Aviation is one of the four units I now command. And in my opinion, I have some of the best TFOs and pilots in Florida. I asked my flight crews to share some advice with you about how to improve air-ground operations.
Communication is the key to directing ground units successfully. Ground units therefore must have an understanding of the helicopter's perspective. Officers should take an orientation flight whenever possible so they can see what the flight crew sees.
Ground units also need to know that life is very different flying an orbit at 1,000 feet and looking down. What appears very apparent on the ground is not so apparent from the air.
Air crews need to know that this issue of perception works both ways. What's apparent from the air may not be so on the ground.
Though the helicopter is equipped with GPS software, not every ground unit has it or knows how to use it. The best way to pinpoint an officer's location at night while inbound is to have the officers on the ground flash their handheld lights or have them point a strobe light at the helicopter.
When ground units say they have their overheads on, it may not help the TFO that much because there are other emergency vehicles flashing theirs in the same area.
K-9 teams must advise when they start their track. The TFO is constantly searching the area and if not notified will be doing something else at the start of the track. It's more effective if the TFO and K-9 units are in sync from the start. If at all possible, the track should not start until the helicopter can provide support.
When possible, the ground unit requesting aviation support should wait until the helicopter is on scene to effect a traffic stop. That way if the occupants bail, the helicopter is already on station.
Sometimes a TFO will only catch a glimmer or small piece of a heat signature while in orbit. It's critical that officers on the ground keep a good perimeter and send units to check out the location before the signature is lost. Thermal imagery is effective, but it's not bulletproof. Sometimes skill and luck have to collide to make it successful.
Ground units need to understand that when they give out descriptions about tattoos, jewelry, or scars, those things don't help the flight crew. During the day, bigger descriptors like the top layer clothing color, direction of travel, vehicle damage, or something that they are carrying helps more. "Zoom" on the camera is not like CIA satellites in the movies.