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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

Schweizer’s 300C helicopter comes standard with a three-bladed fully articulated main rotor, a 32.5-gallon fuel tank, collective friction control, left-hand pilot in command controls, and a tie-down kit. A three-seat cushioned interior keeps cops comfortable during patrol.

Military Surplus Aircraft

In past years, police agencies were able to acquire military surplus aircraft and use them for law enforcement missions. Unfortunately, in too many cases, the acquisition of these aircraft was seen by many as a chance to get a "free" helicopter. Folks, there is no such thing as a free lunch or a free helicopter.

You may be able to acquire a military surplus aircraft for significantly less than the cost of a new certificated aircraft, but you will be limited in what you can legally use it for, and it will not be "free" to operate-far from it.

For example, you can expect the operating cost of an OH-58 to be very close to its civilian counterpart, the Jet Ranger. They're different aircraft, but similar enough to make cost comparisons.

If your department heads view military surplus aircraft as a means of getting into the airborne law enforcement industry on the cheap, educate them. In many cases, these aircraft are capable of performing many law enforcement missions safely-if they are maintained properly and flown by professional and appropriately rated pilots. Unfortunately, that hasn't always been the case and the National Transportation Safety Board's records are littered with many such examples.

Fixed Wing Vs. Rotorcraft

You shouldn't necessarily assume that you need a helicopter. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. If your mission will be patrol support to a large, sparsely populated area, a fixed-wing aircraft may suffice. They're usually less expensive to acquire and operate, they have greater endurance than helicopters, and they're typically faster. You can even put infrared systems and other bad-guy catching equipment in them.

The San Diego Police Department operates both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. We use the airplanes for surveillance and transportation. But most of our time is spent flying over a large metropolitan city at night, 1,000 feet above the ground. And as much as I try to avoid it, I occasionally need to land in unprepared areas or hover. This is helicopter country. You need to identify your mission and do your research before selecting an aircraft.

Selecting Pilots

Will you use civilian pilots or sworn pilots? Insurance companies will undoubtedly have a lot to say about that if your agency decides to acquire private insurance. But oftentimes departments opt, instead, to self-insure. You have to be careful here.

Everyone wants to fly the machine-that's understandable. But law enforcement missions can be very demanding. Law enforcement pilots will eventually find themselves in stressful, demanding situations that require good judgment, good skills, and experience. Experience takes time to acquire, skills can be learned, but judgment is the wildcard. Don't misunderstand me here-civilian pilots are just as capable of exhibiting poor judgment as sworn pilots. There is no room for poor judgment in the cockpit.

At the risk of offending my civilian pilot friends, it's been my experience that pilots with law enforcement background make the best pilots for certain missions. This is simply because they have experience doing the cop's job, and insight into the bad guy's mentality. But initially, they may not be qualified to act as pilot in command (PIC).

To overcome this, some agencies are hiring civilian pilots to act as PIC while sworn officers act as Tactical Flight Officers (observers). At the same time, the TFOs are being trained to fly the aircraft. Once they acquire the necessary pilot ratings and flight time, and demonstrate good judgment and skills, they can transition to the pilot's seat. This seems to work well and keeps the insurance company happy.

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