Information on Starting a police helicopter or law enforcement aviation unit
Thinking of starting a law enforcement air unit?
Let's say you are a law enforcement officer on a small, medium, or even a large department which currently has no air unit, but you would like to study the feasibility of starting up an air unit. Where do you even begin to start? In the short life of this web site I have received a number of emails requesting information on how to start up a police or law enforcement aviation unit. One of these emails came from as far away as Portugal.
While I have never been involved in the start up of an air unit, I can certainly point you in the right direction to start the research and information gathering process.
Make sure you read the section at the bottom of this article about cost effective Light Sport Aircraft.
The Airborne Law Enforcement Association:
ALEA is the largest and possibly the only association for law enforcement pilots and professionals throughout the world, but the majority of it's members and member agencies are here in the United States. The Airborne Law Enforcement Association is also the number one resource I know of for information on starting up a police or law enforcement aviation unit. Before we review the information available in the members only area, here is how you can become a member and get access to all of that valuable information.
To Join ALEA:
Simply go to http://www.alea.org and click on the "Join/Renew" tab at the top of the page, then click on the link for new memberships. You will be prompted to answer a short series of questions such as, are you employed as part of a maintenance crew, or are you employed as part of an air crew for a governmental law enforcement agency? Don't worry just keep clicking the proper answer and you will eventually be asked if you "support the principles and mission of airborne law enforcement etc.....", this is where you would answer yes and will be allowed to join ALEA as an "Associate Member".
An associate membership will cost $35.00 a year, and you do not even need to be a sworn law enforcement officer. Thus a member of the city council or even the mayor could join ALEA and have access to all of the same information. A couple of additional notes on membership. It will take approximately 10 days to process your application and issue you a password to the members only area. ALEA also publishes a membership directory in book form which is mailed out every year. As a new member you should receive a digital version of this directory in your welcome package, (until the new year rolls around). This will also be very valuable in your research as it contains the names and contact info on most members and member agencies. Many of the member agencies also list what type of aircraft they fly, so you can really target your research.
Starting your research:
There are three primary sections of the ALEA website that are going to be of interest to the person or agency wanting to start a law enforcement aviation unit. The first area is New Unit Startup and has information in the following subject matters;
- Public Use Aircraft- Information related to the operation of public use aircraft, including FAA Advisory Circulars, articles, FAA interpretations and associated documents.
- A basic outline or checklist of issues related to organizing a law enforcement aviation unit.
- "Law & Order" Article by Richard D. Morrison re- starting up an air unit.
- Questions most often asked about utilizing helicopters in law enforcement.
- A brief report regarding the feasibility of police helicopters in the Columbus Police Department.
- "Law & Order" article by Tom Yates, re- AIR UNITS "Eyes In The Sky".
- Outline/guide for starting an air unit, which is the accumulation of data from several actual law enforcement air unit start ups.
- Table of Contents for a sample Air Unit Standard Operating Procedures.
- Sample of Standard Operating Procedures.
Before starting a police or law enforcement aviation unit one must become familiar with the "Public Use Aircraft" rule. Not all agencies operate under this rule, for example the San Diego Sheriff's Aviation Unit does not operate under "public use." However, anyone operating a military surplus aircraft will be operating under public use. ALEA's Public Use Aircraft issues Resource Book, mentioned above, should give you a good understanding of this rule.
There are a couple other sections in the ALEA members only area that are going to be of interest to anyone researching air unit startups.
Research & Resources:
In this section you will find 12 papers or studies regarding law enforcement aviation or helicopters in police work, etc. I won't list them all but here are some of the studies available here, that may be of interest to an agency considering starting an air unit.
- Helicopters In Law Enforcement
- The Helicopter as a Safer Alternative to High Speed Pursuits
- Helicopters in Pursuit Operations
- Police Helicopters and their Invaluable Contribution to Law Enforcement
- Purchase and Operation of a Law Enforcement Helicopter: A Cost Benefit Analysis
- NTSB Public Aircraft Safety Study
That is just a partial list of the studies available to you in this section.
Still another section of interest would likely be Sample Unit Manuals.
Sample Unit Manuals:
This section contains various manuals submitted by nine different law enforcement agencies, including manuals from the RCMP Air Services, and a manual from the UK. The manuals listed include;
- Unit Standard Operating Procedure Manuals
- Tactical Flight Officer Training Manual
- Helicopter Pilot Objective Performance Standards
- NVG Standard Operating Procedures
- Policy and Procedures Manual
There are a total of 18 manuals on file in this section from which you can gather information or put together you own SOP manual.
In addition to the three sections listed here, ALEA maintains several searchable databases in the members only section that would likely be useful for anyone researching new police aviation unit start ups.
Consider Fixed Wing & Light Sport Aircraft:
You don't need me to tell you that helicopters are notoriously expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate. Compare a helicopter to a similar size fixed wing aircraft and virtually everything about the helicopter will be more expensive, including initial flight training. Yes helicopters are more versatile, you can land on mountain peaks and rescue lost or injured hikers, or you can do low level hover searches for suspects hiding in the brush. But fixed wing aircraft have their place in law enforcement aviation as well, and depending on the intended mission of your proposed new air unit, may have some advantages.
Fixed wing aircraft are actually the preferred aircraft for surveillance missions. They are cheaper to keep in the air, they stay in the air longer, and may not draw the same amount of attention that a police helicopter would.
Fixed wing aircraft can manage vehicle pursuit operations just as a helicopter can. The helicopter probably still has a few advantages, but the fixed wing is a perfectly capable platform for this type of call or mission.
Even for routine police patrol the fixed wing aircraft is well suited. Though fixed wing patrol aircraft often operate at slightly higher altitudes, equipment such as gyro stabilized binoculars and onboard day/night cameras such as FLIR, make the fixed wing aircraft a viable and cheaper alternative to the helicopter.
Affordable Police Aviation?
The Sheriff's Association of Texas along with the US DOJ Science & Technology Division have been conducting a study of Light Sport Aircraft and their use in law enforcement. Before we go any further a quick note on Light Sport Aircraft.
LSA or Light Sport Aircraft is actually a new FAA rule/category that came into existence only a few short years ago, but was many, many years in the making. Forget everything you once knew about ultralights or the ultralight rule, or the old "sport" pilot license. It all falls under the FAA's new Light Sport Category. The new rule has many advantages to anyone wanting to take up flying, but let's look at how it might help you in starting a new aviation unit.
One thing that the Light Sport rule did was to spawn a whole new breed of affordable factory built, 2 seat aircraft many of which can be purchased for around $100,000. Compare that to the purchase of a 2007 Schweizer 300CBI piston powered helicopter for $275,000 or a new R44 Raven II piston helicopter for $380,000. You can see where a LSA might be a viable solution depending on the type of law enforcement missions you plan to carry out. You can also see why there is an interest to study this LSA solution further.
For a short article from ALEA on the Sheriff' Association of Texas and US DOJ study click on this link.
Here are a couple of links to the US Department of Justice Science & Technology Division, regarding this study.
For updated information on this study click on the second link and look for the person to contact at the bottom of the page.
Hopefully this article has given you an initial plan of action for the research necessary to start up a new law enforcement or police aviation unit.