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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

MD Helicopter's 520N rotorcraft seats five and can hold a large amount of equipment. Front seating is made to be comfortable, providing good visibility and extra legroom. The single-engine aircraft’s NOTAR anti-torque system is designed to be quiet and provide safety, as well as a smoother, more comfortable ride.


Over and beyond what an insurance company requires, the infrastructure of an air support unit must enable the unit to operate as safely and effectively as possible.

The unit must have a viable safety program headed by a safety officer who is appropriately trained, and who has the authority to maintain direct contact with upper-level management. This is contrary to the way law enforcement organizations usually operate. The "chain of command" has its place, but not when it interferes with safety. If a safety issue has been identified, the safety officer must have the authority to address the issue immediately and to discuss it with management personnel, without fear of retribution.

Recurrent Training

Recurrent emergency procedure training is essential to the ongoing safe operation of a unit. Modern aircraft, when properly maintained, are extremely reliable machines. But machines break, and people make mistakes.

An engine failure at night over downtown San Diego would be a lousy time for me to be practicing my autorotation skills for the first time in a year. The skills required to repeatedly perform successful autorotations to specific landing sites are perishable.

You should budget and plan to conduct training of perishable skills every three to four months. Your unit's training program should be as realistic as possible. If you fly at night, you should train at night. If you fly with night vision goggles, you should train with night vision goggles. It's ironic that training is usually the first area to be cut when budgets are tight, especially when one considers the potential losses and liability associated with not being proficient.


The issue of contract maintenance vs. agency maintenance is akin to the issue of who is best suited to act as pilot in command. The qualifications, conscientiousness, and professionalism of the individuals working on your aircraft are the most important issues to consider.

Fortunately, at least for certificated aircraft, the rules are pretty well defined. You cannot cut corners when it comes to maintenance without dire consequences.


This is certainly one of the most overlooked problem areas in the airborne law enforcement industry. It's not unusual for law enforcement organizations to transfer their management people around within the organization to gain experience. And in most cases it makes sense because these folks have come up through the ranks and likely have experience in the departments they now oversee (patrol, investigations, SWAT, etc.).

However, it's rare for a cop moving up the ranks to have any aviation experience. Yet, cops can find themselves in a management position where they are all of a sudden expected to manage a unit they know nothing about-an aviation unit, a unit that is in large part governed by an outside entity: the FAA. Worse yet, agencies are often reluctant to send their management personnel to any aviation-related management classes because they know they're not going to be there very long. It's a vicious cycle.

What's the answer? Hopefully, you can find someone who doesn't want to be promoted out of the unit. Or better yet, promote from within and keep the expertise in the unit. As long as that person is performing his or her job well, either one of these solutions should work. Once again, however, that's a concept that flies in the face of the way law enforcement usually does business.

Creating an air support unit is no easy task. It's not unusual for it to take a decade or more for the planets to align and for an agency to get its first aircraft.  But once you're airborne, don't ever think you've got it made. Remember the name-"air support." The unit works for the rest of the department, not the other way around. You have to constantly sell your program. If you're successful, you will be amazed at what you can do with an aircraft for your agency. And so will your fellow officers.

Joint Operations

If your agency feels that it can't afford to operate an air support unit on its own, it might consider sharing expenses. There are many ways of doing this, but here are a couple examples.

The Burbank and Glendale Police Departments in California operate their own aircraft. However, they do so out of a single hangar. The facility construction costs and day-to-day operating expenses are shared 50/50.

Each department has its own mechanic, but the mechanics help each other out when needed at no charge. Each agency owns its own aircraft, but they're from the same manufacturer, so the crews can easily train together. The officers on the Burbank and Glendale air support units stagger their patrol shifts to ensure that one aircraft is up at all times, and the crews respond to radio calls in both neighboring cities. And in a pinch, the Tactical Flight Officers from one agency can fly in the other agency's aircraft.

The Southern California cities of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach have taken it one step further, operating one of the smoothest joint operations around. The cities' police departments operate a single air support unit via a Joint Powers Authority (JPA). It took a while to get through all the legalese, but for the last seven years the unit has thrived.

Each agency provides pilots and TFOs, as well as on-site mechanics. The mechanics also provide contract maintenance to the Orange County Sheriff's aviation unit. The unit owns three turbine aircraft, with an envious aircraft replacement program.

Every 3.3 years, the oldest aircraft is replaced with a new one. This can be accomplished because both agencies put money into an account at a rate that will enable them to fund an aircraft purchase every 40 months. Without this kind of planning and vision, agencies will be forced to come up with a huge chunk of money whenever they want, or need to replace, an aircraft. A board of governors oversees the unit, and representatives from both agencies serve on the board.

Over the years, I've paid close attention to these operations. They demonstrate how two agencies working together can provide law enforcement services that are both effective and cost effective.

Kevin Means is a 22-year veteran of law enforcement. He has served 12 years with the San Diego (Calif.) Police Department's Air Support Unit and is the current president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.

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