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.[PAGEBREAK]
Advising the time delay will give the air crew clues as to how to plan their search. The longer the delay, the wider the search has to be.
When dealing with missing persons, physical descriptions are critical. Height, weight, age, hair color, clothing are standard. However, other descriptors are equally important and often omitted. For example, does the person use a cane or walk with a limp? These things will help the flight crew to differentiate them from other people in the area.
Ground units update each other constantly. However, when they use cell phones, IMs, or other methods that don't come across to the flight crew, air-ground communication breaks down. Every wasted minute in the air works against the agency in the long run. It ties up the air unit unnecessarily, expends costly fuel, and puts time on the helicopter, and that hastens mandatory maintenance.
Day and night operations are very different. Daytime operations are usually done with magnification devices. At night the flight crew uses thermal imaging or night vision goggles (NVGs). With thermal imaging the TFO sees in black and white and with NVGs it's green. In other words, "wearing a red shirt" can mean nothing to the air crew at night.
Please don't ask the flight crew how many suspects are in the house. The thermal imaging camera system cannot see through things. It is also significantly hindered by fog or moisture. The closer the temperature of the environment is to the item the flight crew is searching for, the harder it is to see a signature.
Because night operations are different, flight crews prefer not to use the spotlight to shine on the suspect unless requested or absolutely necessary. Using the spotlight cancels out the thermal imagery. If this happens, the flight crew runs the risk of losing contact because the camera system takes time to reset.
Ground units should provide GPS coordinates whenever possible. The TFO can plug these into the aero computer and use them to guide the pilot right to the spot. This is especially helpful with missing or lost persons in a wooded area.
The ground units should locate and describe the crime scene to the air unit. This is the starting point for the air search, as it would be for a K-9 search.
If the flight crew has NVGs, it would be great if the K-9s wore an NVG identifiable strobe; it makes tracking them much easier.
Ground units must realize that when they say, "You're right over it!" the helicopter has already moved hundreds of feet away. Also, the TFO will not see a flashlight beam on the ground while using thermal imagery. It works off of heat, not light.
When using the clock system to guide a helicopter in, it's always the relationship to the helicopter and not to the ground. It's their nine o'clock, not yours. The clock system is not as effective while the helicopter is in orbit as the position is always changing. Sometimes counting down to the spot helps with timing. "You're over it in 3, 2, 1, now."
Searching in a wooded area is harder from the air. Looking down through the trees with the naked eye or a camera system is often not very successful. The TFO can only see what's in the open breaks in the trees.
Having access to an aviation unit is a Godsend. But not knowing how to maximize its effectiveness in today's economy is just plain negligence.
Working with a TFO is almost an art form because it takes training and practice. For example, it takes about four months of training and practice to get a TFO up to speed. In comparison, how long does your agency train your ground units in helicopter operations? When was the last time you held joint training in perimeters, tracking, and selecting landing zones?
It takes a concerted effort by both ground and air units to be effective. Training to achieve air-ground coordination pays for itself tenfold when you are able to catch the suspect, find a missing person, and enhance officer safety.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He has 24 years of law enforcement experience, is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.