It's been my experience as a field supervisor that there is no substitute for some type of aircraft in the air to support your operations. My preference has always been a helicopter due to its versatility, but a fixed wing aircraft also has its place. Regardless of what type of aircraft you use, it's imperative that the coordination between ground units and flight crews be seamless and problem free. It's also been my experience that this is easier said than done.
An ideal flight crew consists of a pilot and a tactical flight officer (TFO). The pilot is responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft. The TFO is responsible for everything else. In other words, the pilot handles flight operations and the TFO handles the ground operations. It's the TFO who handles the law enforcement mission.
Flight crews' duties include watching out for obstructions, managing airport and police radios, and operating the spotlight. They also operate day/night cameras, thermal imaging, and aviation computers (GPS/mapping); and manage the flight recorder that documents the flight for court purposes. In other words, they have their hands full, it's not an easy job, and you soon find every technology has limitations. After speaking with many flight crews over the years, I've come up with some key points on the topic that can help officers improve communication and effectiveness.
Key Points to Consider
- Communication is the key when working with flight crews who are trying to direct ground units. Ground units must have an understanding of the air crew's perspective. The best way for you on the ground to understand the perspective from the air is to take an orientation flight so you get a feel for what the flight crew sees and does.
- Ground units need to understand that life is very different when flying at 1,000 feet and looking through a camera display console. What appears very distinguishable on the ground is not so apparent from the air. For example, ground units can see into buildings and aircraft can see the tops of roofs; it hardly works the other way around.
- Modern aircraft are usually equipped with GPS software but not every ground unit has access to 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 because there are other emergency vehicles flashing theirs in the same area.
- When working with K-9s, it's important that the handlers advise when they are on scene and starting their track. That brings the air crew's focus to include the K-9 team's safety as they guide them to the suspect.
- During felony stops, the ground unit requesting support should wait until the aircraft is on scene to effect the traffic stop. That way if the occupants bail, the aircraft is already on station.
- Thermal imagery is not magic. Sometimes the flight crew will only catch a glimmer or small section of a heat signature while searching. 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. There is no surefire way to avoid false heat signatures; sometimes it turns out to be an animal and not the suspect.
- Ground units need to understand what type of information a flight crew can use. Not everything that is put out over the radio helps. Descriptions about tattoos, jewelry, or scars that aren't detectible from the air even with high zoom camera systems are not helpful.
- Advising of the time delay since an incident occurred 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, and clothing are standard. However, other descriptors that are more visible from the air are often omitted. For example, does the person use a cane or walk with a limp? Think in terms of what visual indicators a flight crew can use to differentiate them from other people in the area.
- Ground units update each other constantly. However, when they use cell phones, instant messaging, or other methods that don't come across the radio, communication can break down and waste time. Every wasted minute in the air works against the agency in the long run. It ties up the air assets unnecessarily, expends costly fuel, and also puts time on the aircraft parts. This hastens mandatory maintenance, which is based on flight hours.
- Flying daytime operations are usually done with magnification devices. At night, the flight crew uses thermal imaging or I2 night vision goggles (NVGs). With thermal imaging the flight crew sees in black and white and with NVGs it's usually green. In other words, calling out that the suspect is wearing a red shirt means nothing to someone using either one of these types of technology.
- Please don't ask the flight crew how many suspects are in the house. To date there are no available camera systems that can see through things. They are also significantly hindered by fog or moisture. The closer the temperature of the environment is to that of the item the flight crew is searching for, the harder it is to see the heat signature.
- Because night operations are different, flight crews prefer not to use the spotlight unless absolutely necessary. Using a spotlight prevents the use of thermal imagery, canceling out its effectiveness. If the spotlight is activated, 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 flight crew can plug them into their flight computer and fly 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 aircraft has already moved hundreds of feet away, so this vague assertion is not helpful. Also, the flight crew will not see a flashlight beam on the ground while using thermal imagery. It picks up heat, not light.
- Use the clock system to guide an aircraft in (12:00 straight ahead, 6:00 directly behind, etc.). It's always given in relationship to the aircraft and not to you on the ground.
- The clock system is not as effective while the aircraft is in orbit, as its position is always changing. Sometimes counting down to the spot helps with timing. Something like, you're over it in 3, 2, 1, now, works well.
- Searching 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 flight crew can only see what's in the open breaks in the trees.
- Want to get good at working with aviation assets? Train, train, and then train some more.
Benefits of Coordination
It takes a concerted effort by both ground and flight crews 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 retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a master's of political science degree from the University of Central Florida.