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Life of a Law Enforcement Helicopter Pilot

Posted 11 years 363 days ago ago by Admin

By Sgt. Steve Lindley - Flying Law Enforcement helicopters can be a very rewarding and exciting career. It is, however, sometimes a tough field to get into. I speak from a standpoint of a pilot in a small/medium sized division with a few unique features and this does not represent the industry as a whole. There are many departments of many sizes and shapes and everyone does things just a little differently. That being said, my viewpoint does not represent every possible situation.

Most Police departments, Sheriff’s Offices, and State or Federal agencies require their pilots to be sworn law enforcement officers. So, to be a police pilot you must first be a police officer. (Usually for at least 3 years) Law enforcement agencies typically hire pilots from within their organization. There are a few exceptions, and some agencies do hire civilian pilots. A vast majority of police pilots come from a military background (some still active in the National Guard or Reserve units). The agencies that hire from within usually require the potential candidates to possess at the minimum a Private fixed-wing license before consideration is given. Most departments have a CFI on staff who provides the training and recurrency rides on a set time frame. The potential pilot may start out as a TFO or Tactical Flight Officer to “get his or her feet wet” and allow other pilots to observe how they handle themselves in the airborne setting.

Law enforcement flying almost always involves 2 people in the cockpit. The pilot flies the aircraft and the TFO does the “police work”. TFO’s normally handle the FLIR, Nitesun, police radios, gyrobinoculars, and any other mission related equipment. Good communication and organizational skills are a must in the cockpit.

In our organization we utilize 2 full time personnel (1 pilot and one pilot-mechanic) and all other personnel have primary jobs outside aviation (detective, street officer) and are used on an on-call basis. We work a normal 1st shift schedule and are on pager the rest of the time. We rotate call a week at a time split between 4 pilots and 5 TFOs. We also fly training missions regularly with the TFOs to keep us all sharp. Some large departments (such as LAPD) may employ as many as 30-40 pilots.

The benefits and pay are all inline with police work in general and no extra “flight pay” is included in our salary. We are, however, compensated by overtime when we are called out beyond our normal duty hours.

We fly VFR only and do use NVGs. We have flight minimums by policy and pilots and crew have discretion when it comes to weather or mission concerns to refuse or abort a mission. We fly a lot of “low and slow” and are intimately familiar with the height-velocity curve. We are also aware of wires, towers, and projectiles.

Most of our flying is conducted looking for people who do not wish to be found, although we also fly looking for people who WOULD like to be found as well (missing persons). We fly a few car chases from time to time and those are considered to be the icing on the cake. Our main mission, however, is to keep our officers on the ground safe.

The aircraft we fly (as do a lot of smaller departments) are ex-military surplus OH-58’s and we operate a UH-1H and provide Air Rescue. The larger departments fly BH206s, MD500s, A-Stars, EC-120s and a few fly Robinsons or Schweizers. We put approximately 300 hours a year on all three of our airframes.

There is one main downside to police flying. You are employed by a political operation and sometimes the public you serve (or even your own administration!) decide your operation is “too expensive” and pressure the politicians to shut you down. It’s an ongoing battle in some jurisdictions to keep a unit up and flying. Statistics are your friend and detailed ones should be kept to justify your existence.

As a LE pilot you will also be required to have a good presence and outstanding PR skills. One of the functions of the unit is to fly to static displays at schools, churches and businesses to “sell the product”. The taxpayers want and have a right to see where their tax money is going. You have to project a good image.

If you desire more information on this subject visit the Airborne Law Enforcement Association website at www.alea.org