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How to Start an Air Support Unit

Get your agency airborne with a team that can fly to the aid of patrol, fire, or any other unit at a moment’s notice.

October 01, 2003  |  by Kevin Means


Robinson Helicopters Robinson’s R44 Raven helicopter is designed and equipped especially for law enforcement. A 28-volt electrical system and communications, navigation, and surveillance equipment come standard. Removeable left seat pedals and collective control can be installed to allow a co-pilot to control the craft.

I have to admit that when I was asked to write this article, the first answer to the question, "How do you start a SWAT unit?" that came to mind was, "Get a lot of money."

And while it's true that it's more expensive to operate a law enforcement helicopter than a police car, it's not quite that simple. It's also true that, when operated by trained, professional pilots, aircraft can provide tremendous benefits to law enforcement agencies and the public—benefits that would cost a lot more to obtain by any other means.

Institutional Commitment

When an agency evaluates the concept of creating an air support unit, there is always someone at the tip of the spear. If that's you, the first thing you should do is determine the level of commitment from your organization. Will your agency support the operation over time? This is just as important as the money necessary to start a unit.

The money may be available. If it is, I guarantee that there are a bunch of other folks who would love to get their hands on it and use it for other things. Air support units often operate at airports, out of the mainstream of the law enforcement organization itself. Over time, the newness of a unit wears off and it becomes easy for administrators downtown to make cuts to a unit that's out of sight and out of mind. This is when it can get dangerous.

The dedicated members of the unit will do everything they can do to survive. The more they're able to "make do" the more the agency will cut back. If this continues, eventually, something will go terribly wrong and people will be left scratching their heads, asking the ridiculous question, "How could this have happened?"

An air support unit is like an aircraft. It requires maintenance to operate safely and effectively. If you don't maintain it, it will break.

Selecting An Aircraft

An agency should have some idea of what it wants its aircraft to do. Identifying the mission and the operating environment is crucial to selecting the proper aircraft.

For example, a light piston engine helicopter may be perfectly suited for patrol support in a small- to medium-size sea-level city. However, that same aircraft may not be adequate for patrol support in high, mountainous terrain, but neither will some smaller turbine aircraft.

In San Diego, we sold our program to administrators, in part, on the idea of performing patrol support and firefighting missions. We even bought the Bambi-Buckets and all the stuff that went with them. Well, after we loaded up our aircraft with two donut-eating cops, all the necessary radio gear, infrared systems, and police gizmos, we realized we couldn't even lift an empty Bambi-Bucket, much less one that had half a ton of water in it. We even had to remove the cargo hooks because they weighed too much.

The best way to avoid making the same mistake is to learn from the mistakes of others. Talk to units that perform the mission you envision your unit performing in similar environments. What would they do if they had it to do all over again?

Tags: Helicopters, How-To Guides, Agency Cooperation

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