The Tactical Flight Officer
A police air crew normally consists of the pilot and the observer, also referred to as a tactical flight officer. Not only does “Tactical Flight Officer” sound way cooler, but it really is much more descriptive of the duties of the non-pilot half of the air crew. It is also the first position that the vast majority of law enforcement officers will fill upon being assigned to the aviation unit. In order to be considered for the position of a police pilot, you must first become an accomplished tactical flight officer.
It can also be argued that (pilot training aside) the job of the TFO is the tougher job on the helicopter. The TFO is the representative of the police helicopter when it is over a scene. He or she is the voice, the eyes, and the ears of that aircraft as far as any ground officer is concerned. The TFO is the primary tactical decision maker aboard the aircraft. Whether or not the police helicopter is effective in a given situation has much to do with the attitude, skills, and decision making of the tactical flight officer.
Let’s not forget about the pilot however. Normally it is the senior and more experienced pilot, who came up through the ranks as a TFO, who provides the initial training for new tactical flight officers. The pilot is still a very valuable resource in the cockpit. He or she is the second set of eyes and ears. He or she can offer suggestions, provide input, and assist the TFO with tactical decision making. But then there are those times that the pilot has his hands full operating inside controlled airspace, talking to air traffic control, and watching for other aircraft, leaving little attention that can be devoted to helping the TFO.
One of the more difficult jobs of the TFO is operating the FLIR or infrared camera during night operations. We don’t have the time here to go into details, but I promise it can be a very humbling experience particularly for the new or inexperienced TFO. You are operating a moving camera, from a moving platform, in an area you may not be familiar with, attempting to interpret heat signatures from a small screen in front of you in the cockpit. The pilot has one hand on the collective and one on the cyclic so all he can do is provide verbal assistance. It is intense on the job training that is capable of producing sudden burst of profanity from even the most subdued TFO, not to mention instantaneous beads of sweat.
It is also the TFO who is closest to the action or excitement. While the pilot quietly focuses on altitude, airspeed, and aircraft position, it is the TFO who is providing rapid fire updates of the suspect as he flees pursuing officers and makes every attempt to prevent arrest. It is a great feeling knowing that it was your observations, coordination, and communication that assisted in a violent felony suspect being taken into custody!