A primer on police aviation

Ed Note:  Police1 is pleased to introduce Kenneth J. Solosky as the newest addition to our growing roster of writers. Ken presently serves as Chief Pilot for the Newark (N.J.) Police Department and is the founder, president, and lead instructor for Code Red Training Inc., an aviation, emergency medical, safety, and security training company. Previously, Ken served for 21 years with NYPD as a Lieutenant/Chief Pilot/Director of Training for that agency’s Aviation Unit. Ken has lectured across the U.S. and in various other countries on airborne law enforcement operations and has written for the Airborne Law Enforcement Association’s magazine (Air Beat), Professional Pilot magazine, and others. We proudly welcome Ken as our Police1 Aviation Columnist.  

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Law enforcement aviation was born in 1929 when the New York City Police Department assigned fixed-wing airplanes to combat the growing aviation menace of the day; barnstormers! It seems that enterprising young pilots would set-up shop on the farmlands of New York City (yes, farmland!) and offer rides or fly aerial stunt shows (for a small fee, of course!). After a few accidents, and amid public outcry, police aviation was born.

Countryside, Ill., police chief Tim Swanson, right, and pilot Kurt Kaiser stand near an OH-58 helicopter that the city received from the U.S. military as part of a surplus giveaway in Monee, Ill., Friday, Jan. 26, 2007. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Countryside, Ill., police chief Tim Swanson, right, and pilot Kurt Kaiser stand near an OH-58 helicopter that the city received from the U.S. military as part of a surplus giveaway in Monee, Ill., Friday, Jan. 26, 2007. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

During the past 20 years, police aviation has seen explosive growth with many agencies acquiring their first aircraft through the military surplus program. This program, which allows agencies to acquire military aircraft at little or no cost, has allowed many smaller agencies to join the police aviation arena. Many of these previously could have never started an aviation unit. As these programs grew, many agencies have subsequently purchased “purpose-built” aircraft designed specifically for their missions.

Today, more than 800 law enforcement agencies operate aircraft in the United States. Other countries that deploy police aviation units are numerous and diverse; Canada, England, Italy, Australia, Dubai, Germany, and Japan are just a few of the many countries that now routinely use dedicated airborne law enforcement units.

Police Aviation units in America exist in order to directly to support the law enforcement mission. Operating both airplanes and helicopters, every level of law enforcement is represented including local, state, and federal agencies. The aircraft being operated range form small single engine airplanes and helicopters up to large business jets. Naturally, the larger federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA, and Customs operate large fleets that consist of airplanes and helicopters.

Aviation Unit Missions
The missions tasked to an airborne police aviation unit are limitless. Using both airplanes and helicopters, today’s law enforcement airborne units perform routine patrols, surveillance missions, search and rescue, counter-terrorism patrols, searches, transports, speed enforcement, vehicle pursuits and command and control for emergency incidents. These missions are carried out by a wide and diverse range of aircraft including jet airplanes, turboprops and helicopters of all shapes and sizes. Some agencies utilize small and light piston aircraft while agencies on the federal level use quite sophisticated and large aircraft for their assignments. Among the missions performed at the federal level include using large business jets for international travel to obscure and often very dangerous locations around the world.

The aircraft used by airborne law enforcement range from military surplus aircraft to brand new aircraft purchased and designed specifically for the law enforcement mission. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office uses a very large military surplus aircraft known as “Air 5” for their search and rescue missions in the mountains and canyons of California.

The Benefits
Several studies have been done by various agencies to determine the value and effectiveness of law enforcement aviation. The first study, done by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) done in 1972, concluded that the rate of apprehension was increased by 40 percent when a law enforcement aircraft was used. In the ensuing years, various other studies have found that apprehension rates and vehicle pursuit apprehensions were significantly increased when a law enforcement aircraft was involved. Most important, a Canadian study asked police officers what was the best aspect of law enforcement aviation and 76 percent of them replied; “it increased my safety.”

The unique capability of an aircraft, combined with the latest in technology, has produced a powerful and effective weapon. Today’s aircraft are equipped with the latest in aviation technology such as “glass cockpits,” heads-up displays, and advanced navigation systems. Partnered with the latest in law enforcement technology such as night vision goggles, forward looking infra red (FLIR) and microwave down-linking, this all adds up to one reality – a very capable and effective crime fighting weapon. This weapon not only can save lives and provide dramatic results; it provides the patrol officer with a high degree of confidence, allowing them to do their jobs more effectively.

A Police Aviation Unit’s Make-up
In the United States, there are usually two “models” of airborne law enforcement units. The first is using two sworn officers as flight crew. The two crew members – one acting as the pilot and one as the tactical flight officer – work together to complete their missions safely and effectively. In some cases, both crew members are pilots and they decide which one will perform the tactical flight officer role or in some cases these are dedicated assignments. The second model is using a civilian pilot along with a sworn tactical flight officer. The reason that agencies utilize the second model is that finding qualified and experienced pilots within an agency can be a problem. Because of their size, many smaller agencies simply do not have the personnel from which to draw pilots. Even if they have pilots, sometimes insurance requirements demand they have a certain amount of flight hours. In today’s economy, it is not surprising to learn that gaining the pilot license and subsequent experience can be cost-prohibitive for many police officers.

Some agencies, particularly at the federal level, hire a pilot and require them to be trained, attend their appropriate academy and earn the “sworn” status.  They are then immediately assigned to the aviation section.

Both models have their advantages and disadvantages but both have demonstrated a very high degree of safety and success.

The Results
There is no doubt that a funded, properly trained and properly managed airborne police unit can make a huge difference in meeting the agencies objectives, missions and goals effectively while helping to keep ground units safer. For example, during a pursuit, the use of an aircraft dramatically increases safety and a properly coordinated aerial pursuit almost guarantees the successful apprehension of the subject. Airborne police aviation is seen as crucial in many agencies operations and is playing an increasing role in the law enforcement scene. There is no doubt that, pun intended, the sky is the limit for airborne police units!


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