Whoever coined the expression, "It's easier than it looks," wasn't discussing how to fly a helicopter.
Leonardo Da Vinci's flying machine sketch may have been an early inspiration for this genuinely odd piece of aviation brilliance that's deployed by larger law enforcement agencies and regional collectives of smaller ones for search and rescue, pursuit support, surveillance and other patrol duties.
To understand the operational story behind this rare bird, POLICE Magazine headed to Sgt. Mike Ingram, the lead pilot of Pasadena (Calif.) PD's airborne law enforcement unit. The unit's six helicopters—an MD 500, Enstrom F28F, pair of Bell 206B-3 JetRangers and pair of converted military Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warriors—also assist a regional narcotics task force and support patrol units in 10 nearby cities.
Flying a helicopter is a multitasking challenge that requires a pilot to manipulate a trio of inputs to control the direction, air speed and altitude of the airship. It's not like flying fixed-wing aircraft.
"Planes were designed to fly and helicopters were designed to beat the air into submission," Ingram explains.
A chopper pilot must be simultaneously aware of the craft's collective controls, cyclic controls and tail-rotor pedals.
Ingram sits in the right seat with the collective control stick on the floor between he and the tactical flight officer to his left. The collective raises and lowers the chopper by changing the pitch, or angle, of the main rotors. The stick includes the throttle at its tip, which Ingram twists toward him when more power is needed.
The cyclic control stick rises between the pilot's legs. The joystick-like control bears the most similarity to other aircraft, because it moves the chopper forward, backward or side to side, depending on which direction it is pushed or pulled. Pushing the level forward changes the angle of the rotor blades, thus pushing the craft's nose down.
And lastly, a pilot uses the two tail-rotor pedals on the floor to stabilize the craft. As the main rotor turns counterclockwise, the helicopter's body would be pushed clockwise due to the natural laws of physics. By pushing the left pedal, the pilot increases the pitch of the tail rotor and turns to the left. Pushing the right pedal decreases the pitch of the tail rotor and turns the helicopter to the right.
In tandem, these controls give police helicopter pilots the ability to position their craft for a bird's eye view of a vehicle stop, foot pursuit or suspicious vehicle lurking outside a power plant.