Are Police Helicopter Pilots Dangerous?
Admittedly this article is in response to a page on the World Wide Web that makes some pretty one sided statements about police pilots. This particular page states that most police pilots are “unsafe”, “endanger the public”, “do not have proper training" are "inexperienced”, “conduct dangerous maneuvers”, and that by training police officers to be pilots it reduces the avenues for “properly trained pilots to gain employment.” It is also stated and inferred that the only way to be properly trained as a helicopter pilot is to be trained by the military.
While this is obviously one person’s opinion, it is on a website that ranks high in the search engines. It has undoubtedly been viewed by thousands of readers, many who have an interest in becoming a police helicopter pilot. So to be fair let’s take a closer look at the subject.
Training-The Federal Aviation Administration issues licenses to all helicopter pilots in the U.S. with the exception of the military. But, if a pilot leaves the military and wishes to fly in the civilian world, he too must be licensed by the FAA. By the way, that is the same FAA that issues the licenses to the pilots who fly the commercial jets you travel on.
Training is essentially the same for every helicopter pilot in the U.S. Each student pilot is required to study and understand the fundamentals of helicopter aerodynamics and flight. All helicopter pilots licensed by the FAA must demonstrate proficiency in all areas of basic helicopter flight, first to his flight instructor then to an FAA examiner. This is in addition to all other areas required to become a private or commercial pilot, such as, airspace, navigation, charts, radio communications, etc.
Now there are two ways that a police pilot can receive initial training, (unless he or she is a former military pilot). He or she can be trained in house by the agencies own flight instructors, which are Certified Flight Instructors licensed by none other than the FAA. Or, they can be sent out to a civilian flight school where they receive training by Certified Flight Instructors, licensed by the FAA.
Regarding Experience- police helicopter pilots very typically fly more hours per week month and year than do military pilots. This is common knowledge in the helicopter industry. Police pilots will fly anywhere from 3 to 6 hours a shift, with 8 hours being a rare occurrence. A police pilot with just a few years of experience will likely have double the flight time of a military helicopter pilot in the same time period.
Let’s go back and talk about flight training for a minute. Remember I said there are typically two ways a police pilot is trained. Well in my case I benefited from both systems, in house and a civilian flight school.
I received my first 24 hours of helicopter instruction from 4 different deputy sheriff- certified flight instructors within my unit. Of the three most experienced instructors one had 6800+ flight hours, one had 5200+ flight hours and one had 4600+ flight hours with the fourth instructor having over 2000+ flight hours. None of these instructors lacked experience. The idea here is to take advantage of both systems. The vast knowledge and experience available in house, combined with the teachings of flight instructors at one of Southern California’s most respected helicopter flight schools.
From this point I was assigned to the flight school full time until I had a total of 150 hours, and the successful completion of my commercial helicopter check ride with the FAA examiner. My first 24 hours were in MD500 series while my flight school time was all in Schweizer 300s. After my commercial check ride I received a MD500D transition and a MD530F transition course both taught by Chin Tu, owner of Civic Helicopters. I was then sent for a 2 day emergency procedures course at Western Helicopters in Rialto Ca., where I received training in all emergency procedures, to include multiple full touch down autos in Western’s MD500D.
After returning to my unit again I received a few hours of additional training to put it all together and confirm in the Sergeant’s mind that I was in fact ready to fly patrol. Once being cleared by the Sergeant I was still assigned to a more experienced pilot for the next two shift rotations. Since then I have returned to Western Helicopters for a 2 day mountain flying course, and more emergency procedures training. Sorry to bore you with all the training, but several times a year a MD factory pilot brings his helicopter to our unit where we receive ongoing emergency procedures training which includes multiple full touch down autos.
Now all of this only brings me up to my main point in this article. It is absolutely ridiculous to try to label an entire group of individuals, whether they are pilots, or any other group, with one label or to try to paint them all with the same brush. To prove my point let’s take a look around the aviation industry in the U.S. for the past 20 years and discuss a few cases.
One of the most astounding cases actually comes to us from the military. That is the crash of a B52 Bomber at Fairchild Air Force Base in 1994. The bomber, valued somewhere between 100 and 500 million, with four lives on board, crashed into a ball of fire in front of family and friends, after exceeding bank angles and stalling, while practicing for an upcoming air show. The Lt. Col. Who was pilot in command had a long, long, history of intentional safety violations where on at least 6 occasions he flew the bomber at altitudes, bank & pitch angles in clear violation of Air Force regulations as well as the aircraft flight manual.
But with everything we know about the above incident, do I believe that all Air Force or military pilots are dangerous. Of course not! To make such a statement would be laughable.
There is another case that comes to us from Miami Florida in June of 2000. That is the fatal crash of a news helicopter known as “Sky 6”. The helicopter, an MD600 Notar crashed in a residential neighborhood killing the pilot and a news cameraman. As the investigation unfolded it was learned that the pilot had a federal conviction for smuggling drugs using an aircraft. Also, that the pilot routinely performed unnecessary high risk maneuvers to the point that the deceased cameraman had complained to other coworkers two days before the crash.
Immediately before the accident he had been flying alongside another helicopter talking to the pilot over the radio. Other pilots heard the discussion and heard the accident pilot state “watch this”. Here are the NTSB’s findings, “The pilot’s ostentatious display and in-flight decision to perform an abrupt low altitude pitch up maneuver (aerobatic flight)”- causing the main rotor blades to strike and chop off the tail boom. A dangerous pilot indeed, but do we label all news helicopter pilots as dangerous because of his actions? No!
Let’s take a look at one more case that comes from the commuter airline industry here in the U.S. In October of 2000 a Pinnacle Airlines, twin engine Bombardier CRJ200, a 50 seat aircraft with two pilots and no passengers crashed about two and a half miles short of the runway in Jefferson City Mo. killing both pilots. The plane was on a repositioning flight and since there were no passengers on board the Captain and First Officer decided to take the aircraft to the very upper limits of it’s altitude cruising capability of 41,000 feet. This aircraft would normally cruise at 37,000 feet but there was word of an unofficial "410" club at Pinnacle Airlines, of other pilots who had taken their aircraft to 41,000 feet.
Even prior to reaching this altitude there were a number of intentional pitch up maneuvers in the aircraft that were beyond all published angles of pitch. The cockpit voice recorder recorded laughing and joking in the cockpit. The pilots switched seats and one went to the back of the plane to get a coke to celebrate. Soon both the aircraft and the pilots were in trouble. Because they were operating on the edge of the aircraft’s altitude limits both engines subsequently flamed out and the aircraft stalled. An emergency was declared but the pilots did not reveal that they had double engine failure until 13 minutes later and after passing up 4-5 airports where they could have potentially glided the aircraft to a safe landing. They finally began getting vectors for Jefferson City Missouri airport. They didn’t make it, and they paid for their mistakes with their lives. But, in light of this crash do I think that most airline pilots are unsafe and endanger the public. Again the answer is no, to make such a statement would be ridiculous.
The purpose of looking at these other incidents is not to point fingers, but instead to point out that there are a very small percentage of pilots in all fields that certainly could be considered dangerous. Just like there are a small percentage of police officers, doctors, surgeons, fireman, and any other group or classification who will operate irresponsibly.
When it comes to police helicopter pilots I would suggest that the opposite is true. Most veteran law enforcement officers have a long history of evaluating and minimizing risk, as well as sound judgment and decision making so that they can go home to their families every night. It is from this group of veteran officers, which have impeccable service records that most agencies select their tactical flight officers and pilots. Their years of hard work and professionalism on the streets are carried over into the cockpit, thus providing a law enforcement resource that protects the public not endangers it.