Law en­force­ment avi­a­tion units have ex­isted for more than 60 years, but a lot has changed over the decades. In the early days, he­li­copters were used pri­mar­ily to give po­lice a bird’s-eye view of traf­fic and spe­cial events. Only a few de­part­ments used he­li­copters, pri­mar­ily large metropoli­tan ar­eas like New York City and Los An­ge­les. To­day, there are count­less mis­sions that in­volve law en­force­ment avi­a­tion units across the coun­try. What started as a means of traf­fic con­trol has evolved into search and res­cue, medi­vac, sur­veil­lance, sup­port for pa­trol of­fi­cers, and even a means to send live video to a po­lice sta­tion or a com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­ter.


In the United States, most po­lice he­li­copters have a crew of two or, in some cases, three — the pi­lot, a Tac­ti­cal Flight Of­fi­cer (TFO), and a tac­ti­cal or med­i­cal spe­cial­ist.

The pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity of the pi­lot is the safe op­er­a­tion of the air­craft. If the sit­u­a­tion dic­tates, the pi­lot will also get in­volved with po­lice du­ties by ob­serv­ing some­thing or as­sist­ing the TFO with ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

The pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Tac­ti­cal Flight Of­fi­cer is ev­ery­thing else that’s go­ing on in­side the he­li­copter. Ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tion with ground units, es­tab­lish­ing perime­ters, nav­i­gat­ing to calls, and lo­cat­ing sub­jects with a for­ward-look­ing in­frared (FLIR) cam­era are just a few ex­am­ples.

When a third of­fi­cer is as­signed, he’s usu­ally a tac­tics or med­i­cal spe­cial­ist, some­times both. If needed, this flight mem­ber is gen­er­ally tasked with dis­mount­ing the he­li­copter to ac­com­plish tac­ti­cal en­force­ment or med­i­cal mis­sions. He could also serve as an emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cian while the he­li­copter is trans­port­ing a pa­tient. Some agen­cies that serve par­tic­u­larly rowdy, or ac­ci­dent prone, com­mu­ni­ties in­clude a full-fledged para­medic as part of the crew.

No two L.E. avi­a­tion units are ex­actly alike, but al­most all air units ex­ist to sup­port the guys on the ground. Ad­di­tion­ally, an air unit can pro­vide faster-than-nor­mal re­sponse times to high-pri­or­ity calls. They can paint the pic­ture of what’s hap­pen­ing at a com­plex call from a bird’s-eye view for re­spond­ing units to have a bet­ter plan upon their ar­rival. Air units are also syn­ony­mous with car chases and can re­move al­most all risk by call­ing the chase from the air rather than a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous ve­hi­cle pur­suit.



The ma­jor­ity of law en­force­ment he­li­copters are equipped with a FLIR cam­era. Th­ese cam­eras can’t see through walls or glass, but they’re ex­tremely ef­fec­tive in area searches.

Peo­ple raised on Hol­ly­wood movies can’t un­der­stand why FLIR can’t see through ob­jects, es­pe­cially glass. Brian Spillane from FLIR Sys­tems ex­plains, “The wave­length of elec­tro­mag­netic en­ergy doesn’t pen­e­trate glass the way vis­i­ble light can. Be­cause of this, the sen­sor is un­able to de­tect it.”

In the past, heat sources were small white blobs, or even dots on the screen. Older cam­era tech­nol­ogy wouldn’t al­low the TFO to de­ter­mine if a heat source was a piece of dis­carded con­crete from a con­struc­tion crew or a deer. The lat­est FLIR cam­era sys­tems pro­vide enough de­tail for the TFO to de­scribe the sub­ject’s phys­i­cal fea­tures and cloth­ing. This new tech­nol­ogy comes at a cost, though. A well-out­fit­ted FLIR unit can cost up­ward of $500,000.

Gwin­nett County Po­lice Depart­ment Cor­po­ral Richard King, a for­mer K9 han­dler turned pi­lot, at­tests to the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments that pro­vide ground units with more ef­fi­ciency and safety.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing on nu­mer­ous K9 tracks,” King said. “Our air unit would lo­cate a tar­get they’d want us to check out. More of­ten than not, those heat sources were big rocks, man­hole cov­ers, or some form of wildlife.”

Now King is the one in the air di­rect­ing those K9 units to check heat sources. King said, “With the higher res­o­lu­tion in newer FLIR cam­eras, I’m able to de­ter­mine if the heat source is a deer or a sus­pect and not waste a han­dler’s time while they’re on a track. I’m also able to see if the sus­pect has a weapon, or if he’s try­ing to con­ceal him­self in some in­stances.”

King re­counted a call where his unit was search­ing for an el­derly Alzheimer’s pa­tient with a FLIR 380HDC. “It was past mid­night, and tem­per­a­tures were just above freez­ing. We had a very thick tree cover, and after search­ing for nearly two hours, we fi­nally lo­cated the vic­tim next to a chain-link fence be­tween a junk­yard and a heav­ily wooded area. There wasn’t much tem­per­a­ture con­trast in the area where the vic­tim was, but we were able to ad­just the cam­era and dis­cern her from the other heat sources around her. With­out a newer cam­era with more res­o­lu­tion and a wider range of tem­per­a­ture ad­just­ment, we wouldn’t have been able to find her.”

In ad­di­tion to FLIR, po­lice he­li­copters are typ­i­cally equipped with a high-power white light. A stan­dard search­light is typ­i­cally be­tween 30- and 40-mil­lion can­dle­power, pro­vid­ing both a wide search beam and very tight spot­light.

It’s an ef­fec­tive tool dur­ing searches and helps the TFO com­mu­ni­cate with of­fi­cers on the ground — “See the house I have my light on? The sus­pect is be­hind the house west of that.”

Two other pieces of equip­ment found in most air­craft are gyro-sta­bi­lized binoc­u­lars and night vi­sion gog­gles. The com­bi­na­tion of search­lights, NVGs, FLIR, and a trained crew with good com­mu­ni­ca­tion gives ground of­fi­cers a huge tac­ti­cal ad­van­tage.


He­li­copters aren’t just fly­ing flash­lights any­more; they’re able to pro­vide real-time ob­ser­va­tion and im­agery dur­ing on­go­ing in­ci­dents, beam­ing live, or near-live, video down to in­ci­dent com­mand posts and even to in­di­vid­ual pa­trols.

Se­cure air­borne video trans­mis­sion sys­tems can cost more than $400,000

for a ca­pa­ble helo-mounted cam­era, avion­ics, and the nec­es­sary ground sta­tion. Add another $25,000 to $30,000 for a man por­ta­ble viewer that looks some­thing like a Pana­sonic Tough­book, and you’ve the abil­ity to give on-scene com­man­ders near real-time in­tel­li­gence. This ca­pa­bil­ity is use­ful while polic­ing large protests, ri­ots, large fires, or other siz­able catas­tro­phes, es­pe­cially those that de­mand in­ter­a­gency co­or­di­na­tion.

TV sta­tions have been us­ing sim­i­lar sys­tems for years, but the prac­tice is grow­ing in law en­force­ment as agen­cies and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties jus­tify the ex­pense of air units by pro­vid­ing shared ser­vices to other agen­cies. A prime ex­am­ple is the way an LE air unit might be tasked to pro­vide live im­agery to a fire­fight­ing com­mand post. A live feed en­ables com­man­ders to make de­ci­sions and al­lo­cate re­sources more ef­fec­tively.

A ded­i­cated air­borne video trans­mis­sion sys­tem is spendy, but it’s the only thing that’ll work when the bot­tom falls out of the grid, say, fol­low­ing a hur­ri­cane. But th­ese ex­pen­sive sys­tems aren’t the only means of sup­ply­ing air to ground video. King says air­crews have been get­ting down and dirty by plug­ging cel­lu­lar don­gles into their on­board com­put­ers and broad­cast­ing di­rectly to of­fi­cers on the ground. It’s not se­cure, con­nec­tiv­ity is spotty, and you’re de­pen­dent on com­mer­cial video chat ap­pli­ca­tions, but it can get the job done in a non-mis­sion-crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion.


Ground of­fi­cers be­lieve the air­crew’s el­e­vated po­si­tion al­lows them to see ev­ery­thing. That as­sump­tion isn’t al­ways true and can lead to con­fu­sion. When the TFO has eyes on a sus­pect dur­ing a chase, nu­mer­ous ob­sta­cles block the TFO’s view of the sus­pect. Heavy tree cover, cov­ered park­ing garages, and other bar­ri­ers are just a few ex­am­ples. There are times, how­ever, when a sharp-eyed TFO makes life much safer for ground units. John Chap­man, an of­fi­cer in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, re­calls an in­ci­dent dur­ing a foot pur­suit.

“I was in a foot pur­suit with a stolen ve­hi­cle sus­pect and was fall­ing be­hind,” says Chap­man. “He was run­ning my ass ragged, jump­ing fences. I chased him into one of those stor­age unit places and lost sight of him. As I slowed down to be­gin search­ing for him, I heard our air unit over­head.

They cir­cled the stor­age units while I searched on the ground, alone.

As I ap­proached a cor­ner of one of the build­ings I heard over the ra­dio, ‘Ground unit on foot, STOP.’ I stopped, and the TFO then told me, ‘Your sus­pect is crouch­ing in the door of a unit about 20 feet around that cor­ner.’”

This al­lowed Chap­man to move to a bet­ter po­si­tion and sur­prise the sus­pect. The TFO also worked with ar­riv­ing ground units to walk them onto Chap­man’s lo­ca­tion, sub­du­ing the

pect. Chap­man says a Lorcin .25 auto was on the ground in the door where the sus­pect was crouched. He says, “The air unit saved that dude’s life.”


De­pend­ing on the size of the he­li­copter, agen­cies run spe­cial­ized mis­sions with SWAT teams. Trans­port­ing SWAT per­son­nel sounds sim­ple enough, but work­ing with he­li­copters makes ev­ery­thing riskier. Aside from the dan­ger of guys run­ning into in­vis­i­ble tail ro­tors, there are other chal­lenges.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is tough be­cause of noise in and around the he­li­copter. Head­sets are pretty much manda­tory for the SWAT pas­sen­gers. Some guys plug di­rectly into the he­li­copter’s in­ter­com sys­tem, and some run comms through hand­held ra­dios. Us­ing ra­dios lets the op­er­a­tors com­mu­ni­cate seam­lessly with the air­crew be­fore en­ter­ing and after ex­it­ing the air­craft. Hand sig­nals are also fairly ef­fec­tive; at least, they beat scream­ing.

The Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment’s Air Sup­port Di­vi­sion and SWAT train and run what’s called SWAT In­ser­tion Pro­ce­dure or SIP. Four

SWAT of­fi­cers step onto the skids of a he­li­copter, at­tach them­selves to safety straps, and fly to a rooftop where they’re dropped off. Hand sig­nals are used ex­ten­sively on SIP and things are care­fully chore­ographed that some­thing so slight as a pi­lot’s head nod is used to com­mu­ni­cate that it’s safe for of­fi­cers to mount the skids.


In 2017, LAPD pa­trol of­fi­cers re­sponded to a house bur­glary in progress. Although the oc­cu­pant of the home es­caped, the sus­pect was still in the home with ac­cess to mul­ti­ple firearms. The sit­u­a­tion turned into a bar­ri­caded sus­pect call out for SWAT of­fi­cers and an air unit. Dur­ing the call the sus­pect shot at the re­spond­ing of­fi­cers.

“Be­cause of the lo­ca­tion of the house,” said SWAT of­fi­cer Bobby Gal­le­gos, Jr., “SWAT re­quested the air­borne plat­form shoot­ing tech­nique in case the sus­pect at­tempted to flee into an open area from the rear.”

Gal­le­gos and another SWAT of­fi­cer mounted the out­side bench seats of the air­craft. The sus­pect came out the rear fir­ing at of­fi­cers and ran into the open. The he­li­copter pro­vided a plat­form from which the air­borne of­fi­cers could suc­cess­fully end the threat to sur­round­ing of­fi­cers and civil­ians.

Ad­dress­ing the evo­lu­tion of air­borne plat­form shoot­ing tac­tics, Gal­le­gos says, “This tac­tic would prob­a­bly not have been pos­si­ble a decade ago. As vi­o­lence against law en­force­ment [of­fi­cers] and ter­ror­ism has in­creased, the depart­ment un­der­stands the need for this tech­nique and sup­ports the train­ing.”

Although rarely used, law en­force­ment’s tech­niques for the ap­pli­ca­tion of lethal force from the air con­tinue to evolve. JC Cor­bett, a for­mer TFO with San Bernardino County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, says one of the most im­por­tant changes in the last decade is the prac­tice of train­ing TFOs as shoot­ers. In San Bernardino, says Cor­bett, TFOs are trained to tran­si­tion from an ob­server role to a shooter role, so the on-scene air­craft doesn’t need to break con­tact and waste time pick­ing up a spe­cially trained SWAT of­fi­cer if the sit­u­a­tion calls for an aerial en­gage­ment.

At the tac­ti­cal level, Hol­ly­wood’s por­trayal of shoot­ing aloft is far from ac­tual re­al­ity. En­gage­ment dis­tances by he­li­borne snipers are gen­er­ally in the scores of yards, says Cor­bett. “Some of the long-gun guys can do OK at 150 yards from a sta­ble hover, but that all de­pends on your pi­lot.”

One of the ac­cepted mis­sions of he­li­borne gun­nery is dis­abling ve­hi­cles. It used to be eas­ier, says Cor­bett, when dumb en­gines could be slowed or stopped by tar­get­ing key en­gine com­po­nents, such as the al­ter­na­tor, ra­di­a­tor, or big hoses. But as en­gines be­come smarter, he says, “You’re try­ing to dis­able as much as you can in the en­gine com­part­ment be­cause the elec­tron­ics can now com­pen­sate for the dam­age.”

Another area of evo­lu­tion in aerial plat­form shoot­ing has been the move to red-dots from mag­ni­fied op­tics, as he­li­borne shoot­ers re­al­ized a wider field of view is more valu­able than a mag­ni­fied view when the shooter, air­craft, and tar­get are all mov­ing.


Most of­fi­cers want a he­li­copter avail­able to them 24/7. The largest ob­sta­cle is bud­get. Any type of air­craft sup­port­ing pa­trol op­er­a­tions will be ex­tremely ex­pen­sive. The pur­chase of a he­li­copter and sup­port equip­ment can en­tail sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars, but the on­go­ing costs of main­tain­ing and train­ing an air unit re­quires mil­lions more dol­lars each year.

With ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy, law en­force­ment avi­a­tion has come a long way over the past sev­eral decades. While he­li­copter op­er­a­tions are ex­pen­sive, they’re an in­valu­able re­source in highly pop­u­lated ar­eas where threats to the com­mu­nity re­quire fast, pre­cise, and safe res­o­lu­tion. There’s noth­ing that can com­pare to an over­head part­ner, and the tech and tech­niques that make the re­la­tion­ship more ef­fec­tive con­tinue to evolve.


The air­borne perch of the tac­ti­cal flight of­fi­cer of­fers an in­valu­able, and of ten life­sav­ing per­spec­tive to units on the ground.

The cock­pit of to­day’s law en­force­ment air unit is as much a sur veil­lance sta­tion as it is an avi­a­tion con­trol deck.

ABOUT THE AU­THOR Jack H. Schonely is a re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer who worked on the front lines of law en­force­ment for 36 years. In his 31 years as a Los An­ge­les Po­lice Of­fi­cer he worked a wide va­ri­ety of po­si­tions in­clud­ing pa­trol, K-9 han­dler, Tac­ti­cal...

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