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?[PAGEBREAK]

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.[PAGEBREAK]


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.