A Typical Day as a Police or Sheriff's Helicopter Pilot in the Aerial Support Unit
This could be any random day as a pilot in the San Diego Sheriff’s Department Air Support Unit or many other Law Enforcement Air Support Units across the U.S., just change the name of the locations and the type of helicopter flown.
0700 Pre-flight MD530F, add some oil, load survival bags in back seat, B.S. with your partner about what the day holds, hook helicopter up to chopper spotter and roll out onto pad, top fuel off till it almost runs out, one last walk around helicopter to make sure you didn’t miss anything.
0750- Your partner - the TFO - will take care of logging on with the communications center. As the pilot; do a quick weather check, you started checking the weather outside and on your drive in looks like a great day to fly, after weather check department emails for things happening around the department and any special assignments from the sergeant or Lt., check the service board to see if there are any special request for the helicopter that day. Check local and national news websites for any news that could affect your day, learn the president will be in town later in the week – presidential TFR will be in effect.
0830- Touch base with your partner again, discuss when you want to launch on your first patrol flight of the day. See if he knows of anything special occurring that day. Sometimes he will have an informal request from a patrol deputy to do a fly by and check something. You and your partner decide that if you don’t get a radio call first, you will launch at 0930.
0850- Get in the internet and research a helicopter crash you heard about over the weekend. Read all the news reports you can find on it. Discuss the crash with some of the more senior pilots. You know speculation on the cause of the crash is not wise, but by discussing possible causes and prevention with senior pilots is still both a natural thing to do and very beneficial to you as a pilot.
0925- Meet your partner out at the helicopter. Discuss whether you both want extra fuel in the auxiliary tank. Without it you will be limited to about 1.5 hours of flight time, with it you can eek out a 1.9 or a 2.0. You decide to take the aux.
First Patrol Flight of the Day
0935- Engine start was good, got ATIS information, TFO did final walk around, discuss briefly with your partner if he wants to head to North County or South County first. He advises that North County sounds a little busy
0940– Launch north bound out of Gillespie Field. Fly north over Santee, Poway, Escondido, San Marcos, Vista, Oceanside, scan multiple police radios but so far routine calls – no one needs the helicopter yet.
0958- Fly over the open area known as Eagle’s Nest to see if anyone dumped any stolen cars over the weekend, checks ok,
1006- Get your first call of an armed suspicious person all the way out in Campo – that’s a rural area south and east – about 25 minutes flight time from your current location, head that way pulling as much power as you can just to try to shorten the flight time, after 18 minutes en-route to the call the rural deputy goes “code 4” (no further help needed.)
1024- Ask your TFO where he wants to head to next, he doesn’t have a preference and you are over the back country so you fly by Stone Wall Peak in the Cuyamaca Mountains and waive at the two hikers on the top, you spot a couple of deer in an open field to the east, point them out to your partner who spots 8 more, do an approach and off field landing at Tule Springs – a remote area we sometimes use for training – then head back toward the City of Escondido in hopes of picking up one good felony call before you have to head back to base,
1050- Your TFO switches over to Escondido PD and you hear them on “emergency traffic”, you haven’t been requested yet but your TFO checks in with them and ask what they got, Officer in foot pursuit of a felony warrant suspect and just lost him in the 900 block of E. Grand Ave., dip the nose of the helicopter and pull the collective up to just over 45% torque- which is just below the red line with a little room to spare, put some friction on the collective so it doesn’t move and watch your air speed build to about 105, since you are going “downhill” descending out of the mountains you periodically hit 112 knots on your air speed indicator – thoughts of too much damn parasitic drag on the air-frame keep popping into your head, Your partner has isolated Escondido PD’s radio and you both listen intently for any more updates, responding officers setting up a perimeter, as you come on scene an officer starts yelling into the radio that the suspect just went over a fence south bound wearing a black T-shirt, your partner shouts into the intercom “I got him” as he points toward the fleeing suspect, set up a tight “felony” orbit right over the top of the suspects head, It is virtually impossible for him to escape arrest now as it is virtually impossible outrun the helicopter, watch and listen as your partner directs multiple ground units on foot and running code-3 to the suspect’s location, watch and grin as a police K9 takes suspect to the ground, give the guys on the ground a few more orbits to make sure the everyone is “Code -4” and there are no more outstanding suspects,
1112- Perfect timing you are almost at bingo fuel 150 lbs, your partner clears the call and you point the helicopter toward the base, you and your partner discuss how awesome that call was, you feel good that you didn’t come up empty on what is going to be about a 1.8 hour flight, got ATIS and cleared for landing at ASTREA Base.
1130 – Re-fuel helicopter, return to desk/cubicle and check emails, news stories, chat with other pilots about your last call with Escondido P.D. and the dog bite… your partner catches up on the daily patrol log (TFO’s do the log in our unit.)
1200 – Meet your partner in the officer dining room for lunch , discuss what time you want to take off again for your next flight and decide on 1315 hours.
Second Patrol Flight of the Day
1245 – Call of a missing elderly Alzheimer’s patient in Oceanside. You launch for the call but get cancelled about 5 minutes after takeoff when the subject is located.
1252 – Hear an Encinitas deputy trying to catch up to a high speed vehicle. You point the helicopter toward Encinitas just in case it goes to pursuit… TFO starts entering intersections into the moving map – advises that we are 4 minutes out. Deputy catches up to the vehicle, makes a traffic stop and goes code -4.
1306 – You are somewhere over Rancho Santa Fe, one of the wealthiest zip codes on the entire west cost, when you hear a silent bank robbery alarm dispatched in Del Mar – one of the Sheriff’s Department’s contract cities. This time you are only about a minute away from the call. Once again you pull in all the power you can safely because you know that one or two seconds in your arrival time might make a difference whether or not you catch a glimpse of a high speed vehicle leaving the bank parking lot, or a suspect fleeing through the parking lot. You are the fist unit on scene so you set up your orbit and start monitoring everyone entering and leaving the bank. As ground units begin to arrive your TFO helps guide them into perimeter positions. Your partner advises dispatch that it looks like “business as usual” at the bank. Dispatch then advises that they have the alarm company on the phone who says the alarm is accidental. Your partner places you back in service with the “Comm” Center and you fly off toward the beach.
1316 – You pick up the coast at Del Mar and head North Bound. To the south is pretty much all San Diego P.D.’s jurisdiction. To the north of Del Mar lies Solona Beach and Encinitas, both contract cities patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department. Next is Carlsbad and then Oceanside who have their own departments but you provide air support for every city in the county, so they are part of your patrol beat. As you fly up the coast you position the helicopter at 500’ and about 50 – 75 yards off shore. This way you are not directly overflying the sun bathers on the beach, yet you are close enough to the beach that you can easily auto-rotate to it in the event of an engine out. You keep a constant lookout for south bound air traffic as the coast is a very popular transition route. As long as you stay under 1800’ there is not air space to contend with until reaching Palomar’s Class D in Carlsbad. As the rotors whir overhead you enjoy the stark beauty of the Pacific Ocean and the California coast line.
1320- You notice a small pod of dolphins playing off the shore of Encinitas. You point them out to your partner and give them one orbit to admire nature in all its beauty. You continue up the coast through Carlsbad, getting clearance through Palomar’s Class D that extends about ¼ mile off shore. In a couple minutes you are cleared of Palomar and coming up on Oceanside Ca. You ask your partner if anyone ever showed him the late San Diego Charger Junior Seau’s residence on the beach in Oceanside. He indicates no, so you point it out to him as you pass by.
1325- At Oceanside pier you point the helicopter inland as you continue to patrol the cities of Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos, Escondido, and eventually work your way up to Valley Center – the home of 5 Indian Reservations and 4 major casinos including Harrah’s Rincon, Valley View, Pauma, and Pala Casinos. It’s a semi-rural area but you know that stolen vehicle pursuits and felony warrant suspects can pop up in Valley Center at any time.
1338- Constant monitoring of your fuel level and time in flight shows you have time to hit most if not all of the reservations and casinos before heading south to the base. But between Valley View and Harrah’s you get your next call.
1401- The communications center dispatches you to a lost and overheated hiker in Hell Hole Canyon in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. While the temperature here is a moderate 81 degrees, you know the temperature in Borrego is closer to 95. You immediately turn the helicopter west towards the San Marcos Sheriff’s Station where the closest fuel lies. You never head to the desert on a search and rescue mission without topping off all your tanks (2) or as much as you can carry without going over max gross weight.
1410- Shut down on the San Marcos Pad. You re-fuel while your partner calls the communications center and gets as many details as possible on the lost hiker to include; full description including name, cell phone number, where they started their hike from, what type of vehicle they were driving, where was there hiking destination, and who the rural patrol deputy is who is assigned to the call. Your partner tries to call the lost hiker on his cell phone to ask additional questions, but the calls do not go through. Time to launch.
1425- With a full load of fuel you pick up from the pad and very carefully nudge the helicopter into forward flight easing it over the 5’ fence that surrounds the heli-pad keeping your eyes glued to the Torque needle as it approaches red line. The wrong move here could easily result in an over-torque of the transmission. As forward air speed builds your muscles begin to relax and the torque settles back down out of the yellow arc, as the helicopter does not require as much power in forward flight. Soon you are zipping toward the Anza Borrego Desert State Park at 100 knots. You are still very heavy and you are climbing to get over the mountains, so 90-100 knots is about all the air speed you are going to see for a while.
1445- The flight from San Marcos to Hell Hole Canyon takes about 19 minutes exactly on this day. On the flight out your TFO was able to raise the patrol deputy assigned to the call on a tactical channel and exchange information. The patrol deputy has located the missing hiker’s vehicle at the trail head, and was able to talk with the missing hiker before his cell phone battery went dead. The patrol deputy is able to supply additional information on where the hiker thinks he is, but he is off the trail and doesn’t know which way to go to get back on the trail.
1443- You locate the deputy’s patrol vehicle and the hiker’s vehicle at the trail head and begin your search based off all the information provided by the comm center and the deputy. The Culp Valley Campground is located approximately 2,700’ above the desert floor. From previous rescues at this location you know that most hikers start at the campground and hike down canyon to the desert floor. It is the TFO’s job to direct the helicopter where he wants to search. It is the pilot’s job to fly the helicopter in a safe manner and monitor his instruments. But between instrument scans the pilot assist in the searching and may offer suggestions to the TFO. In almost every case where the search last more than just a couple of minutes, the pilot and TFO will bounce ideas back and forth on which route the hiker may have taken and possible locations. For the next 20 minutes you make several passes up and down the canyon. You see several other hikers but no one matching the description of your lost hiker.
1504- Your TFO exclaims, “I got him” as he points your toward a large group of boulders about half way up the canyon wall – nowhere near the trail. You both wonder out loud “how in the hell did he get there?” As you orbit the hiker your TFO gets on the P.A. and explains to him that we are going to go land and drop off some equipment and then we will be back to pick him up. Before departing however, you both scout the area for the perfect boulder to perform a one skid or toe in landing. You both decide there are several good spots close to the victim so the rescue should go smoothly. The point of downloading most of the gear is to make the helicopter as light as possible, thus giving the pilot a wider range of power as he performs the one skid or toe in landing.
1515- With the gear downloaded you are back in the air for the short flight to the hiker’s location. The pilot will choose the location of the toe in or one skid with continual input from the TFO who is watching your main rotor blades, clearing the tail rotor, and giving you a countdown for how far your right skid is above the boulder you are trying to set down on. At this point the approach is very slow and deliberate. It is not uncommon to hover around and try more than one spot. Perhaps the wind is hitting you from a certain angle in one spot, so your hover and approach is not as stable as you would like. Or you found the perfect flat boulder but there is a large bush exactly where you need to put your tail rotor. After looking close at a couple of spots you find the rock or boulder that works. Main and tail rotors are clear, your right skid touches down on the rock, and you lower the collective ever so slightly to put some weight on the right skid – this locks the skid in place so it is not sliding around on the rock. The moment the skid is down the TFO has his seat belt off and is climbing out in a methodical fashion. He moves around and squats in front of the helicopter windscreen while you pick up and back away. This way he is free to move about without the danger of walking into the main rotor blades in uneven terrain.
1520- You set up a 60 knot orbit while your TFO meets up with the hiker and escorts him back to the location where you dropped him off. You will use this exact same location now to pick up the victim, and to come back and pick up your partner – because it worked well for you the first time there is no reason it should not work again unless the wind changes. Your TFO signals that they are ready and you repeat your approach to the boulder. This time you will simply watch your TFO through the lower windscreen as he continuously clears your rotors giving you a thumbs up, and then uses his hands to a visual representation of the distance between your skid and the rock. You should feel your skid touching the rock at the exact same time his hands come together.
1526- Your victim is strapped into the front TFO seat and you are backing away from the boulder to deliver him back to his vehicle and the waiting patrol deputy at the campground. Within minutes you are making your final approach to the boulder to pick up your partner. You repeat the exact process from the previous landings. Your partner re-enters the helicopter in the same slow methodical way he climbed out – no sudden movements. One last landing at the campground to recover your gear and it will be time to head for the base.
1554- You have your landing clearance from the Gillespie Field tower and begin what you hope is your final approach of the day. It’s been a good day, a lot of fun, but it’s time for a break and you get to go back out tomorrow and do it all over again. Skids are on the pad, throttle to idle, set the clock for the 2 minute cool down of the turbine. The blades have stopped and your partner is already shoving Jet A back into the main tank. You saunter back into the office and check email again while the TFO catches up on the log.
1630- Night shift is geared up and maintenance wants them to fly the same helicopter, so no need to put it away in the hangar at the end of shift. Just pull your bags out so night shift can take over. Nice!
1700- Spend the last 30 minutes of the shift getting in a quick workout at the base gym.
1730- End of Shift (EOS)
That my friend, is a very accurate description of a day in the life of a police or sheriff’s helicopter pilot.