Why Most Police Pilots are Sworn Officers
Spend any amount of time visiting helicopter websites, or particularly helicopter training and career websites, and the topic of becoming a police helicopter pilot will eventually come up. It is often when someone poses the question of how they can become a police helicopter pilot, which is swiftly met with answers such as "it is very hard", "they hire from a pool of beat cops", "they want you to become an officer first", etc. Some make no attempt to hide their disdain for the way most law enforcement agencies hire and train their pilots.
But let's take a step back for a moment. Neither this article nor this site is about civilian pilots vs. police pilots. The purpose of this article is to inform you -the person seeking information, and nothing more. Normally the flow of information on how to become a police pilot ends with the simple answer that they "hire from within." That's where this website comes in. It is my goal to explore every avenue of becoming a police pilot and passing that information on to you.
Let's do take a look at how, and to the extent that we can why, most law enforcement agencies operate their aviation units as they do. First I think it would be safe to say that there are no two law enforcement agencies that are exactly alike. Policies and procedures are going to vary from one agency to the next. This is true of their respective aviation units as well. It is a fact that most large law enforcement agencies prefer to take their experienced and trusted officers or deputies and train them to be pilots. Other agencies do hire experienced civilian pilots and pair them with a patrol officer who fills the role as the tactical flight officer on the helicopter. There are also some agencies that will hire an experienced civilian pilot yet require that pilot to go through the police academy and be a sworn officer.
Why do most large agencies prefer to train their experienced officers to be pilots instead of just hiring pilots? There is no simple answer to this but probably a multitude of complex reasons which likely vary from agency to agency. To be sure, many of the people who put these policies in place, in the various agencies, retired years ago. So it may be difficult to ever go back and nail down the exact reasons the policies are the way they are.
I recall touring our departments aviation facility while a rookie in the academy in 1986. The flight Sergeant said something on that day that always stuck with me. He said "we found that it is better to take deputies and make them pilots then to take pilots and try to make them deputies." Now our air unit started in the 1970's so already by 1986 experiences had shaped the thinking that it was better for our department to do it this way. Who knows what happened in those early days to create this mindset.
It does seem hard to argue that it is better to have a 500 hour sworn law enforcement pilot operating your aircraft than a 5000 hour civilian pilot, (this is comparing a newer LE pilot to an experienced civilian pilot, a number of our senior pilots are approaching or have passed the 5000 hour mark). But it is the way it is and I am sure compelling arguments could be made for either point of view.
I was speaking to a NYPD officer pilot not long ago and he stated that every one of their aircraft mechanics were also sworn police officers. Now this even caught me by surprise as each of our mechanics are very experienced civilian mechanics, (most are also pilots but do not fly our aircraft, even on test hops). I questioned the officer as to why their mechanics were sworn officers. He did not really have an answer except to say that's just the way it is.
Later it dawned on me. At various times in my career I have heard that police unions on the east coast were much more powerful than police unions on the west coast. Could it be the presence of a strong police union that is responsible for NYPD's aircraft mechanics being sworn officers? Could this be another reason why most police pilots are sworn officers? It is certainly in the police union's interest to keep as many positions as sworn police officer positions vs. civilian positions. Some of this is of course pure speculation on my part.
On the flip side of the coin are those agencies that prefer to bypass the cost of training a new pilot and instead hire an experienced civilian pilot. I am sure this makes perfect sense for these agencies particularly from a budgetary standpoint. Though I have not completed an exhaustive study on the subject, it does seem to be the smaller agencies that use this option.
There are also those agencies as mentioned above, that hire experienced pilots from outside the department but require you to go through an academy and get at least some street experience. I recently found a post for a large east coast city looking for former army pilots. The requirements were 1400 hours total time, 800 pilot in command, and 700 hours of turbine time. They still required a 6 month academy and 6 weeks on the streets.
Even when an agency goes outside to hire a pilot, in all likelihood it is going to take a descent amount of flight time/experience to land one of these positions. So, whether you are a young police officer on an agency with a large air unit, or a young student helicopter pilot, landing a position as a police pilot is going to take time, patience, hard work, and maybe even a bit of luck. But information is power and I am committed to becoming the #1 source of information on the subject.
To all my fellow pilots, civilian, military, and law enforcement....Fly safe!
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