Police Helicopter Pilot

Helicopter Aviation & Beyond:

We take you inside the cockpit of law enforcement helicopters around the world while sharing knowledge and insight on how to become a police or sheriff helicopter pilot.

Cedar Creek Falls In The Spring

Cedar Creek Falls; Beautiful But Still Deadly!

Cedar Creek Falls in the springtime, when the water is running and the people are few!

In the spring of 2013 I landed at Cedar Creek Falls in Ramona California to give the newest member of our unit a ground tour. Cedar Creek Falls still accounts for an inordinate number of rescues performed by our air unit each year. Only 3 weeks before my retirement it claimed the life of another hiker who became overheated and lacked a sufficient supply of water. Yes, there may have been other medical issues - we are not sure, but we do know that a 24 year old male hiker did not make it home to his family that night and ended up in the morgue instead. Sad indeed.

While I have never personally hiked to the falls, (though I have threatened it many times) I think I would be much more inclined to do it in the spring, when the water is actually running and not green. Additionally, the throngs of people that gather on the rocks next to the pool all summer long is not exactly inviting to me. 

Cedar Creek Falls is still about a 5 minute hike from our helicopter LZ. N535WK is a MD 530 jet turbine helicopter.

I am putting on my life saving hat for a moment

I rarely do this on this site, but I am going to get up on my soap box for a brief moment. I don't like seeing people die and when it is completely avoidable it makes the tragedy that much worse.

Look, if you are overweight or out of shape, or if you are not willing to carry a significant amount of water with you, please stick to Iron Mountain, Cowles Mountain, or even Torrey Pines State Beach for your hiking adventures.

I honestly applaud you for getting out and getting some exercise, but death is a high price to pay for not doing a little research. It is far less likely that you will fall victim to heat exhaustion or heat stroke if you go to one of these popular hiking spots. 

Secondly, please, please, know where the hell you hiking! 

#1 Cedar Creek Falls & Three Sisters Falls are not the same! They are several miles apart. Hint- if you parked in Ramona, or if you drove down miles and miles of Eagle Peak Rd from Julian (which you won't soon forget) , you are at Cedar Creek Falls. If you drove down Boulder Creek Rd to get to the trail head, then you are at Three Sisters Falls.

#2 Devil's Punch Bowl; It is highly, highly unlikely that you are at Devil's Punch Bowl. The place I know as "Devil's Punch Bowl" has no trails leading to it, and in my 8 years in ASTREA I have NEVER seen one single person there. So stop saying you are at Devil's Punch Bowl, your not! 

Giving the wrong location to rescuers only serves to delay life saving emergency medical attention!

It does not have to be an extremely hot day to die

I personally have noticed an interesting phenomenon if you can call it that. About 4-5 months prior to the death of the 24 year old man, a young lady suffered an identical fate hiking out of Three Sisters Falls. Neither of these days were what I would consider to be an extremely hot day (100+). They were both days in the high 80's or low 90's. The point is, if you suffer from other health problems, are not in very good physical condition, or you do not take an adequate water supply, you can die from heat injuries on a 90 degree day.

By mid summer this beautiful waterfall is for the most part a stagnant pool of green water. Not worth risking your life over!

Cedar Creek Falls has claimed lives in other ways as well. One young man accidentally lost his balance and fell from the top of the falls. Another man dove in and likely struck his head on boulders beneath the water. His body was recovered by the Sheriff's dive team the following day. 

The San Diego Sheriff's Department's Aviation Division performed virtually all rescues in San Diego County in the MD500 series helicopter or the Bell 47 from 1973 until 2004, when the first medium lift fire/rescue helicopter was acquired through a lease by San Diego Fire.

How Quickly History is Forgotten, by Some

Very quickly after the devastating 2003 wildfires, in which I lost my own home, the San Diego Fire Rescue Department acquired the very first medium lift fire-rescue helicopters in the county, (actually the Sheriff's Department owned and operated one or two military surplus Huey,s in the early 90's but I don't think they were ever used in rescues.)

For a full 30 years prior to San Diego Fire Rescue acquiring their first medium lift helicopter, virtually every rescue in San Diego's back country was performed by Deputies operating either an MD500 series helicopter, or prior to that a Bell 47 piston powered helicopter. There was the rare occasion that the U.S. Coast Guard would assist on an inland rescue if the circumstances warranted it. 

Since 2004 San Diego County is now home to 4 medium lift fire-rescue helicopters, operated by public agencies. Two by San Diego Fire Rescue and two by the San Diego Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit. Each day in the county two of those helicopters are outfitted with hoist, making rescue operations safer in most cases.

The Sheriff's Department still routinely conducts rescue operations in the smaller MD500 helicopters, but with the hoist aircraft now available, a considerable number of the rescues are performed by those aircraft and crew.

The San Diego Sheriff's Aviation Unit is slated to take delivery of a third medium lift Bell 205A1++ helicopter, virtually identical to the first two, in late September of 2015. This helicopter was purchased by the County of San Diego as a maintenance spare, so that there are always 2 fire helicopters ready to launch during fire season.

If you find this information helpful feel free to share, you just might save a life. 

S-64 Skycrane High Performance Takeoff Gillespie Field

This video is part of the data dump from my cell phone. I grabbed a shot of this Skycrane takeoff last October (2014). Nothing too special about it (that's always a good thing) just an amazing piece of machinery! I called it a high performance take off, I think they were doing some sort of a post maintenance test flight, possibly checking engine power output or something. They certainly were not hanging out withing the height/velocity curve, but then it is a helicopter after all...


So Long Jet A, N1 & MGT!


Let the good times roll

Well the deed is done. After 29.5 years with the San Diego Sheriff's Department I have turned in my guns and ammo and moved the flight suits to the back of the closet, though perhaps just temporarily.

There is no possible way to thank the SDSO- Organization enough for taking in a 22 year old kid from Oktaha, and giving him a place to call home for so long. It is an organization of which I will always speak highly. 

The same goes for the people. I can honestly say that my last 2 and a half years as a supervisor in the Aerial Support Unit were the best years of my career. I can only attribute that to the incredible people with whom I worked alongside, from top to bottom. In every station and every facility on the Sheriff's Department are dedicated, hardworking, genuine people busting their butts to answer the calls, put the criminals in jail and make the community a better place to live. 

"Pulling the plug" as it is known in police circles was one of the harder decisions I have ever had to make. One feels an almost indebtedness to the people and the mission. But what comes to mind most are the words of an old beat partner who retired a number of years ago, "It was just time to start the next chapter of my life."

What does the future hold?

The first priority was getting some time back into my life. I think it will take at least a few weeks to appreciate not being part of the rat race. 

One goal is to become a dedicated blogger once again. You know you have neglected your blog when it takes 5 minutes to remember how to upload a picture to a blog post. 

Retirement is a bit of a misnomer I guess. We all have to be doing something each and every day of our lives, hopefully something productive that benefits those around us, or at least someone somewhere. 

I do wish to explore flying opportunities that may or may not exist for former police helicopter pilots. It is also highly likely that you will find me hanging around (OK working) the Sheriff's Department on a part time basis under a program known as 960 re-hire. The program allows retired employees to go back to work part time without interfering with their retirement benefits. 

Now I wonder how many blog post I can get if I download every helicopter picture on my phone and post one a day? 

I'm back!


NYPD Helicopter Pilot is Shining Example For Women in Aviation

PILOT PROFILE: Pilot Erin Nolan-Egan

NYPD Pilot Erin Nolan-Egan pre-flighting her Bell 412 Air Sea Rescue Helicopter- photo credit Wall Street Journal

Current Position

  • PIC for Air Sea Rescue in the B412
  • PIC in both patrol aircraft (A119K) and the (B429) we are now in the process of converting our patrol aircraft to the 429. 
  • Instrument flight instructor for the pilots in training, the IFR rating is required for the PICs in the B412 and the B429s

Aviation Degrees Earned

  • BS:  Aeronautical Science with a minor in Meteorology, from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
  • MBA:  Aviation Management   

Pilot Ratings Held

  • Commercial Helicopter with an Instrument rating
  • Certified Flight Instructor Helicopter and Helicopter Instrument
  • Commercial Single Engine Land and Sea, Multi-Engine Land and Instrument rating
  • Certified Flight Instructor Single Engine, Mulit-engine, and Instrument
  • Certified Aircraft Dispatcher

Current Flight Hours (Approximate)

  • Fixed wing-  2450
  • Rotor wing- 2300

According to the FAA in 2013 there were 599,000 licensed pilots in the U.S. in 2013; of those only 33,362 were rotorcraft pilots and of those only 22,235 were commercially rated helicopter pilots. Considering that only about 6% of all licensed pilots are female, one can deduce that the number of female helicopter pilots licensed by the FAA is be less than 1,332. The FAA does not keep a tally on the number of female helicopter pilots specifically, but if you are a woman pilot flying helicopters in a Law Enforcement Air Support unit you are an extremely rare individual indeed. In a country of 300 million people, female law enforcement helicopter pilots would almost assuredly be counted by the hundreds, not thousands.  

By all accounts you will not hear or see Erin Nolan-Egan boasting about being a female pilot or for that matter a female NYPD Helicopter Pilot. But anyone who has worked as hard as she has to earn her degrees, ratings, and pilot position has a certain amount of bragging rights be they male or female.

Being selected to fly and command multi-million dollar police helicopters over New York City is not a small accomplishment by any standard. There are currently two female pilots assigned to NYPD’s Air Support Unit.

Over the past 12 years Erin has climbed the proverbial ladder inside the NYPD’s Air Support Unit to become the first woman pilot to be rated to fly the department’s Bell 412 Air Sea Rescue helicopter. While Erin herself may not boast about flying a 412 for NYPD, society has not lost its appetite for celebrating women who have pushed career boundaries and set the example for other women to follow.

So it is in this vein that we sought out Erin to ask a few questions about her aviation background, experience and how she came to fly for the NYPD.

Also, see the bottom of this article for some U.S. Army statistics on female helicopter pilots vs. male helicopter pilots. You might be very surprised!

An Interview With NYPD Pilot Erin Nolan-Egan

1. Growing up on Long Island, did you ever think or consider that you might one day become an NYPD Officer?  Never, I was always interested in science and the space program.  It wasn’t until later in my college years that law enforcement became an option for me.

2. How old were you when you took your first airplane ride and was that with your father?  I don’t exactly remember if I flew with my father first or if I was on an airliner first.  My mother is a travel agent and when I was kid it was a much different profession then it is today. She had a lot of benefits and I was lucky to have traveled a lot on airlines when I was young.  My first flight in a small plane was definitely with my Dad.  He was a private pilot and had taken my mother and I to places like Hershey Park and I had gone with him on a few flight lessons.

3. As a young girl were you ever allowed to take the controls of the airplane or “help fly”? Unfortunately no, looking back I wish we had done more but my last memory of flying with my dad explains it.  He had taken me on a flight when he had to do a refresher with his flight instructor before renting the airplane and I was sitting in the back. Enjoying the flight and not knowing what was about to happen next, I suddenly hear this alarm sound and we are looking down at the water.  I was scared to death and was yelling at him to take me home. Later, I learned he was doing stall practice, but I didn’t want to hear it nor did I really understand. I told him I never wanted to go again.  The next time I flew with my dad I was in the pilot seat. 

4. When you entered Embry Riddle was it your plan to become an airline pilot or were you open to other career paths in aviation such as the military?  During High School and before applying to college I wanted to go the Air Force Academy and wanted to join the military due to my interests in NASA and the space program. After speaking to some cadets and graduates the restrictiveness and the life commitment were a little unnerving at a young age, so I chose the college route instead.  I originally wanted to study Engineering but while looking at schools I came across Embry Riddle Aeronautical University where I could study Aviation and/or engineering and still become a pilot which was the next best thing.  

5. I understand you are also a licensed aircraft dispatcher. How is this different from being an air traffic controller?  In the Airlines an Aircraft dispatcher is responsible for flight planning, taking into consideration, weather, aircraft performance and weight and balance.  They also monitor a flights progress and will advise the flight crew of any circumstances that might affect flight safety.  Dispatchers also have the authority to divert, delay or cancel a flight.

6. At what point did you become certain you did not want to pursue a career as an airline pilot? During college I applied and was selected as an intern with TWA airlines.  I worked with the chief meteorologist in the dispatch office at JFK Airport.  I was able to sit jump seat and observe flight operations on any flight.  At the time TWA had flights to numerous destinations in Europe so I took advantage of the benefit and on every other weekend off I would pick a flight to a different country and observe the flight operations on both the 747 and 767 aircraft.  Not only was I able to travel to so many interesting and different countries like Egypt but I was able to see firsthand the life of an airline pilot.  By the time the internship was over I wasn’t sure this lifestyle was for me.  There is a lot of time away from home in hotels which of course are great but I figured the allure would wear off in a short amount of time plus I felt like the pilots aren’t really flying they are monitoring the aircraft for very long periods of time.  I wanted something a little more hands on and the thought of helicopters came to mind and eventually I took an introductory lesson in a Bell 47 and I was instantly hooked. 

7. How big of a decision was it for you to temporarily set aside your flying career and become an NYPD Officer?  Honestly it wasn’t that difficult because I never really set it aside. I knew I wanted to be a law enforcement pilot so I took the NYPD entrance exam and was called right away. I had just finished college and needed to decide quickly as I was only 22 years old and needed a job.  I believed it would have been tougher to make ends meet while flight instructing and trying to build time for the airlines.  So I moved back home went to the police academy and upon graduation got right back to flight instructing and flying a “traffic watch plane” for a local radio station to keep building my time.  I always believed in having a backup plan. 

8. As you were making your decision to become an NYPD Officer how did you deal with the possibility that you might not ever be selected to the air unit, despite your aviation degree(s) and ratings? Again, I never really thought about it.  I was very naïve I was young and new to the department and just figured my resume would speak for itself. But I was the first in my family to become a police officer and was really clueless about the politics and the inner workings of the department.  There were many that would say discouraging and disheartening things about my chances of getting into the unit.  I just kept my head up, kept flying and enjoyed my duties as a police officer; I made many friends and had some great partners along the way.   Luckily enough almost 5 years later I was transferred to the Aviation Unit and it was no longer a worry.

9. You have been billed as the first female NYPD pilot to be a designated PIC in the Bell 412. Have there been other female pilots in the NYPD air support unit?  Yes, when I was transferred I was the 3rd female to be assigned to the unit as a pilot, although I was the first with an aviation background and actively flying prior to becoming a police officer.  Within the last 2 years another female has joined our team.     

10. You were part of the air crew when your 412 Helicopter suffered mechanical problems on approach to Floyd Bennett Field. Can you clarify if you were on the controls or if your partner was on the controls? And did you perform an auto-rotation or was it more of an emergency water landing?  The final NTSB report has been released and it is an interesting read if you want to know how they investigated what happened.  Yes, I was at the controls while on low approach back to Floyd Bennett Field when we had a catastrophic failure of the output gear in the combining gear box.  Basically, we lost all power to the rotor system.  The result was an auto-rotative flare to the water. Floats were deployed and the 6 person crew luckily only experienced some lingering, relatively minor injuries.

11. Were you in the air support unit on 911?  I was assigned to the Aviation Unit in January of 2003 making this month my 12th year anniversary.  During 911 I was assigned as a patrol cop in the 69th precinct Brooklyn NY.  I entered the Police academy in 1998 so I was still a young rookie cop during 911.

12. What advice do you have for any young person, male or female, who is considering a career in aviation?  Aviation has many niches so pick what interests you most and pursue what will make you happy. Aviation is a passion and not the easiest goal to reach but it is attainable if you work hard.  The aviation industry as a whole has seen some drastic changes and has become a lot more expensive especially for general aviation where it all begins.  Think of it as becoming a doctor or a lawyer, be prepared to take on a lot of work, a lot of debt, but know if it is your passion it will be worth it in the end.  

Male Helicopter Pilots vs. Female Helicopter Pilots

As part of his studies at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the Army’s Command, Army Major Seneca Peña-Collazo prepared a report entitled Women in Combat Arms: A Study of the Global War on Terror, published in the early part of 2014.

In the study Major Peña-Collazo looked at the records of all U.S. Army helicopter pilots from 2002 to 2013 both in the combat theater and outside of the combat theater. Here is what he found; while women make up 10 out of every 100 Army Pilots they account for only 3 out of every 100 accidents in U.S. Army Helicopters. When he looked at only the AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter 100% of all accidents both Army wide and in theater were all male crews. There were no AH-64 helicopter accidents involving female pilots.

So there you go. Evidence that women make better helicopter pilots than men!

Police Helicopter Pilot.com would like to thank Erin for taking the time thoughtfully answer each of the questions posed to her.

Post Maintenance Ferry Flight is Fatal For Cochise Sheriff Helicopter Crew

Two Killed on Sheriff's Helicopter Returning Home From Glendale Az

Update 1-9-15:  The NTSB has released it's preliminary accident report on this incident. Scroll to bottom of article to read. The full accident report takes approximately 1 year to be released. 

New Year’s Eve turned deadly for the civilian helicopter pilot and mechanic who were on a ferry flight from Glendale Municipal Airport to the Sierra Vista Airport in Cochise County Arizona Wednesday evening.

Cochise is a border county just east of Tucson and Pima County. The county seat is Bisbee and it is also home to the infamous Tombstone Arozona.

The helicopter is operated by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office but owned by Airwest Helicopters LLC of Glendale Az. Both crew members on board the helicopter were employees of Airwest Helicopters. Airwest Helicopters LLC is based at the Glendale Municipal Airport.

The pilot has been identified as retired Glendale Police Officer Jeff Steele and his passenger as 59 year old mechanic Mark Hansen. The helicopter, known as "Coshise Air" was returning to its home airport in Cochise County after routine maintenance in Glendale.

Retired Glendale Police Officer Jeff Steele was piloting the Cochise Sheriff's helicopter that went down New Year's Eve 2014. He and the mechanic on board, Mark Hansen were fatally injured.

Steele retired from the Glendale Police Department in 2011 after 25 years of service.

The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office was notified of the missing helicopter just before 7pm by officials from Airwest, who stated the helicopter had dropped off radar. Search and Rescue personnel were able to ping the pilot’s cell phone and obtain information on its location. This information was passed on to members of SAR who were in the field searching for the downed aircraft as well as the Benson Fire Department who located the crash site around 9:20 pm.

The following was excerpted for the Cochise County Sheriff's official Facebook Page;

"The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by the leasing company shortly before 7:00 pm and advised that they had lost communications with Cochise Air near the Benson area. Tracking software was activated and the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team responded to the general area along with Benson Fire and Medics in an attempt to locate the aircraft.

Search and Rescue personnel were able to trace the cell phone of the pilot which ultimately led to a more narrowed search area south of Interstate 10 outside of Benson. At approximately 9:20 pm, the Benson Fire Department advised that they had located the crash site of Cochise Air and located the two occupants (one pilot and one mechanic) who were deceased at the scene."

Photo of crash scene released by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.

On 12-31-14 at 9:14 pm the National Weather Service issued an urgent winter storm warning for the mountains and high deserts throughout northern and eastern Arizona. The warning indicated snow levels may be as low as 2,000 feet with rain is expected in the lower elevations and rain turning to snow between 4,000' and 4,500' in elevations.

The elevation for Benson Arizona is 3,586'.

A daylight photo of the helicopter crash scene released by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.

In at least one photo of the crash scene released by the Sheriff's Department pieces of the aircraft appeared to be covered in fresh snow. What remained of the aircraft was not immediately recognizable as a helicopter.

The Sierra Vista Airport is located approximately 150 nautical miles south east of Glendale Municipal Airport where it is believed the helicopter departed from. Benson is located approximately 45 miles south east of Tucson. The area surrounding the crash site is being described as remote.

The ill-fated helicopter has been identified as a Bell 206L4 registration No. N57AW. This helicopter replaced another Bell Jet Ranger operated by Cochise County when it lost its tail rotor in September of 2014. In that incident the pilot, Larry Pucci, was able to perform an emergency landing near Tombstone Az without injury to himself or the Deputy Sheriff TFO on board.

The Bell Jet Ranger helicopter pictured here was damaged in an emergency landing in September 2014 after losing its tail rotor. The helicopter that crashed New Year's Eve was the replacement helicopter.

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said in a statement-  "This news leaves me personally, and this organization, with a heavy heart because of the tragic loss of two incredible lives." "We have worked closely with this company and these two individuals since receiving Cochise Air and knowing that they are considered part of Sheriff's Office family makes this so much harder. We send our condolences out to the families of the two people who will truly be missed."

Below is the NTSB Preliminary Accident Report released the second week of January 2015. 

NTSB Identification: WPR15FA072

14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation

Accident occurred Wednesday, December 31, 2014 in Benson, AZ

Aircraft: BELL 206, registration: N57AW

Injuries: 2 Fatal.

"This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On December 31, 2014, at 1710 mountain standard time, a Bell 206 L4, N57AW, collided with terrain 7 miles west of Benson, Arizona. The commercial pilot and pilot rated mechanic were fatally injured, and the helicopter was destroyed. The helicopter was registered to N57AW LLC, and operated by Airwest Helicopters as 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 positioning flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight, which operated on a company visual flight rules flight plan. The flight originated form Glendale, Arizona, at 1550, and was destined for Sierra Vista, Arizona.

The operator reported that the helicopter had not arrived at its destination and that the Sky Connect Tracking System indicated that the helicopter was at a stationary location between Tucson and Benson. The Cochise County Sheriff located the helicopter wreckage about 2030 at the location the Sky Connect system was reporting. The helicopter was fragmented into multiple pieces along a 174-foot-long debris path. Witnesses living in the local area reported hearing a low flying helicopter around the time of the accident, and that the visibility at ground level was very limited, with low clouds and fog."

Las Vegas Police Helicopter Crashes on City Street- Pilot and TFO OK

Pilot Initiates Auto-Rotation After Apparent Engine Failure

Update 1-9-15:  The NTSB released its preliminary accident report on this incident. Please scroll down to bottom of article to read it in its entirety. The complete accident report will not be available for approximately 1 year. 

UPDATE- 1-2-15: The officers who were piloting the helicopter when it went down have been identified as Officer David Callen and Officer Paul Lourenco. Both are flight instructors and each have over 2,200 hours of flight time. See the bottom of this article for a full press release from LVMPD.

Click the 8 News video below to hear the helicopter crew's radio traffic as they are going down. Great job by both officers.

The crew of a Las Vegas Metro Police MD530F patrol helicopter did an excellent job of notifying dispatch that they had an engine out and guiding the helicopter to an auto-rotational landing in the middle of 23rd St between Bonanza and E. Wilson northeast of Downtown Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve.

The area of Las Vegas where Las Vegas Air Support helicopter went down. Graphic- Mapquest

The area of Las Vegas where Las Vegas Air Support helicopter went down. Graphic- Mapquest

New Years Eve however turned tragic for the pilot and mechanic of a Cochise County (AZ) Sheriff’s Department helicopter that crashed while on a return flight from Phoenix to their home airport in Sierra Vista Arizona.

The Las Vegas Police Helicopter departed the North Las Vegas Airport at 1:22 PM to assist patrol units on an assault call. The helicopter and crew were approximately 7 minutes into their flight when the crew reported mechanical problems at 1:29 PM.

A damaged Las Vegas Metro Police MD530F helicopter sets on 23rd St in Las Vegas after pilot was forced to make an auto-rotational landing. Photo Credit LE Baskow Las Vegas Sun

In this situation the pilot and the TFO have approximately 18-20 seconds to lower the collective and enter an auto-rotation, pick out an emergency landing spot and guide the helicopter to it. That is assuming they were flying at an altitude of at least 500’ agl. By all accounts the LVMPD pilot did an excellent job of dodging power lines, homes and cars to place the helicopter in the middle of the street and avoiding injury to anyone on the ground.

Both officers were transported to University Medical Center for evaluation but their injuries were described as non-life threatening. The helicopter came to rest upright but was substantially damaged as it impacted the street.

After visiting both officers at University Medical Center Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie told media outlets that both crew members were alert and would be “fine.”

N530KK where it came to rest on 23rd Street near Downtown Las Vegas on New Years Eave 2014. The helicopter was purchased in 2010 from MD Helicopters. Both crew members survived. Photo credit John Locher, AP

The MD500 series helicopter is considered by many to be the most crash worthy helicopter ever built. The MD500 earned this legacy during the Vietnam conflict where it was operated primarily by the U.S. Army as a scout helicopter known as the MH-6 Little Bird and the armed variant Ah-6 also sometimes called the “Killer Egg”.

Below is the official statement from Las Vegas Metro Police Department on the incident;

LVMPD Helicopter Makes Emergency Landing

"Today at approximately 1:22 p.m., a LVMPD police helicopter took off from the airport and was assisting patrol units on a battery call in the downtown area. At approximately 1:29 p.m. the air unit was forced to make an emergency landing in the area of 23rd Street and East Wilson Avenue. The helicopter landed on 23rd Street, resulting in damage to the aircraft. The two pilots were transported to UMC where they were treated for minor injuries. The names of the pilots have not been released at this time. This incident is under investigation. All future information regarding this aircraft incident will be released by the FAA and NTSB."

Public records indicate that the LVMPD took delivery of helicopter N530KK from MD Helicopters in June of 2010. The helicopter is equipped with a a 650 shp Rolls Royce 250-C30 turboshaft engine. This more powerful engine coupled with longer rotor blades and an extended tail boom make the 530F MD Helicopter’s finest high-altitude, hot-day performer according to company press releases.

While indications are that this incident was the result of mechanical issues, a LVMPD helicopter crash in September 2012 occurred while the crew was practicing auto-rotational emergency landings at the North Las Vegas Airport. During that incident the helicopter suffered a hard landing and rolled over, causing over $1 million in damage. Both officers survived the 2012 crash as well.

But it is precisely the type of emergency procedures training the crew was practicing in 2012, that allows the crew of the helicopter in yesterday’s crash to survive and walk away with minor injuries. 

Tragedy did strike the LVMPD Air Support Unit in July 2013, Officer David VanBuskirk died after falling from a helicopter hoist cable during a night time rescue mission on Mount Charleston. This incident is still under investigation by the NTSB.

About LVMPD Air Support

The LVMPD Air Support Unit consists of 22 helicopter pilots, 2 tactical flight officers and 4 FAA certified aircraft mechanics.

The fleet consists of one Hughes 500D, three MD 530Fs, one Bell 407, two Bell UH1N Hueys, and a Cessna Skylane 182. The Air Support Unit operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and flies 6,000 hours annually.

Another MD530F operated by Las Vegas Metro Police Department on patrol over the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Photo Credit LVMPD

The damaged helicopter was eventually loaded on the back of a flatbed truck and taken to an undisclosed location for further examination by investigators. By 6pm 23rd street was reopened and the neighborhood began to return to normal.

Press Release Issued by LVMPD on 1-2-15

Pilots Involved in December 31, 2014
Emergency Helicopter Landing Identified

"The officers involved in the emergency landing of a LVMPD helicopter on a residential street December 31, 2014 have been identified as Officer David Callen and Officer Paul Lourenco. Officer Callen has been employed with the LVMPD since March, 2000 and Officer Lourenco has been employed with the LVMPD since July, 1997. Both officers are pilots assigned to the
Emergency Operations Bureau, Search and Rescue/Air Support Detail.

Both officers were treated for their injuries at the UMC Trauma Center and were released the same evening. The officers are both experienced pilots, each having over 2,200 flight hours, and both are certified flight instructors. An audio clip of the radio traffic of the incident accompanies this release.

An extensive review of each of the aircraft in the LVMPD fleet is currently underway. Initially, no LVMPD helicopters will be flying in regular service. Each of the aircraft will go through a detailed inspection and maintenance record check. At the conclusion of each inspection, the respective aircraft will be released back into service.

The six helicopters in Metro’s fleet include one Bell 407, three McDonnell Douglas 530-FF’s, and two Bell HH-1H’s. The aircraft involved in this incident was a McDonnell Douglas 530-FF. The department now has five operational helicopters in the fleet. The investigation into this incident remains ongoing. As the primary responsibility for the investigation lies with the Federal Aviation Administration, we will not be releasing further
information or giving interviews at this time

Following is the NTSB preliminary report on this incident.

NTSB Identification: WPR15TA071

14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation

Accident occurred Wednesday, December 31, 2014 in Las Vegas, NV

Aircraft: MD HELICOPTER INC 369FF, registration: N530KK

Injuries: 2 Minor.

"This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.

On December 31, 2014, about 1330 Pacific standard time, an MD Helicopter Inc. 369FF, N530KK, was substantially damaged during an emergency autorotation following a sudden loss of engine power in Las Vegas, Nevada. The two commercial pilots on board sustained minor injuries. The helicopter was registered to, and operated by, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department as a public-use flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed. The local flight originated from North Las Vegas Airport, Las Vegas, at 1322.

The pilot reported that he was orbiting when he noticed a drop in engine and rotor revolutions per minute (rpm). The pilot then rolled the helicopter out of the orbit, and the engine and rotor rpm stabilized momentarily at 97%. The pilot attempted to increase the engine and rotor rpm while turning west towards the North Las Vegas Airport. During the maneuver, the engine and rotor rpm rapidly degraded. The pilot entered an autorotation, and executed an emergency landing. The helicopter touched down hard, the tail impacted the ground, and separated from the airframe."  

San Diego Sheriff's adding a Bell 407GX to Patrol Fleet


407GX glass panel

Phoenix, AZ (July 18, 2014) – Bell Helicopter, a Textron Inc. company (NYSE: TXT), announced that, pending successful final negotiations, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department intends to award a contract for a Bell 407GX. The aircraft will be used for parapublic missions, including: search and rescue, fire suppression, and law enforcement air support to public safety agencies throughout San Diego County.

“We are very excited to provide the San Diego County Sheriff with such a reliable aircraft,” said Anthony Moreland, managing director of sales for Bell Helicopter in North America. “We have seen a great response to the Bell 407 GX in the law enforcement segment, and the aircraft offers pilots increased situational awareness thanks to high visibility and a digital cockpit that reduces workload.”

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department currently has three Bell helicopters in operation including, two Bell 205 A1++  and one Bell 407 to help them protect and serve the citizens of San Diego.

The Bell 407GX delivers power and speed with a smooth, quiet ride and a spacious cabin that accommodates six passengers. The aircraft also features the fully-integrated Garmin G1000H™ flight deck, providing critical flight information at a glance for greater situational awareness and increased safety. The Bell 407GX flight deck's high resolution LCD screens host primary flight and multi-function display information, including Helicopter Terrain Avoidance Warning System, Helicopter Synthetic Vision Technology™, Traffic Information Systems and more. The 407GX also features a tail rotor camera, allowing the pilot a clear view of the tail during take-offs and landings.

Pennsylvania State Police To Fly the 407GX


FORT WORTH, TEXAS (July 22, 2014) – Bell Helicopter, a Textron Inc. company (NYSE: TXT), announced today the delivery of the first two of six Bell 407GX helicopters to the Pennsylvania State Police. They will be used for airborne law enforcement patrol and will serve citizens throughout the Commonwealth.

“We operate six aviation patrol units across the state and provide aerial support to all federal, state and local law enforcement agencies within the Commonwealth,” said Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan. “It is very important that we have modern, reliable and mission-ready helicopters to patrol and serve the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

The fleet routinely patrols the entire coverage area; however, specific patrol units are strategically situated so that response time anywhere with the patrol zone is minimal.

Several new components on each ship will enable the Pennsylvania State Police flight crews to more rapidly and effectively pinpoint exact ground locations from the air as well as provide for interoperable radio communications with ground-based first responders, which operate on a multitude of radio frequencies. The new capabilities also provide real time situational awareness to incident commanders and first responders during times of critical incidents or disasters. These systems will aid in public information and warning, operational coordination, intelligence and information sharing, criminal activity interdiction and disruption, screening, search and detection

“We are honored to have the Pennsylvania State Police as one of our law enforcement customers, and we give our sincere thanks for their ongoing trust in Bell Helicopter products,” said Anthony Moreland, managing director of North American sales at Bell Helicopter. “The Bell 407 has proven its law enforcement capabilities throughout the world and we know it will serve the Commonwealth well.”

Bell Helicopter has supported the Pennsylvania State Police since 1969 when it delivered two Bell 47s, the first Bell helicopters to be part of an airborne law enforcement team. Since then, Bell Helicopter has strived to provide innovative product solutions and the best customer support and service to maintain its valued, long-standing relationship with the Pennsylvania State Police. Bell Helicopter has approximately 450 aircraft serving law enforcement needs in the United States, with customers including the Georgia Department of Public Safety, Los Angeles Police Department and New York State Police.

The Bell 407GX delivers power and speed with a smooth, quiet ride and a spacious cabin that accommodates six passengers. The aircraft also features the fully-integrated Garmin G1000HTM flight deck, providing critical flight information at a glance for greater situational awareness and increased safety. The Bell 407GX flight deck's high resolution LCD screens host primary flight and multi-function display information, including Helicopter Terrain Avoidance Warning System, Helicopter Synthetic Vision TechnologyTM, Traffic Information Systems and more. The 407GX also features a tail rotor camera, allowing the pilot a clear view of the tail during take-offs and landing. 

New Police Helicopter Book "Foxtrot We're On the Way" Hits Online Book Stores

From 1975 to 1981, Billy Anders, a police officer and commercial helicopter pilot, helped pioneer the use of helicopters in law enforcement. As a member of the San Antonio Police Department's Air Support unit, back when Airborne Law Enforcement was still in it's infancy, Anders was at the controls of either a Hughes 500C turbine helicopter or two of the department's Schweizer 300 piston powered helicopters zipping through the air toward "hot" police calls.

Amazon Kindle version                                                                     Paperback version

Author Billy Anders is pictured here with San Antonio Police Department's Vietnam Era Hughes 500C turbine helicopter.

Now over 30 years later Billy Anders has put his experiences down on paper, or on your favorite Kindle, for all police and helicopter enthusiasts to enjoy. Here are just a few of the stories Billy recounts in his memoir; 

"The Day I Bombed Salado Creek - The Body That Didn’t Get Away - The Night the Lights Went Out - Sex and the Single Helicopter Pilot - The Dream That Went Bad - The Angry Go-Away Arm - The Shot Not Heard ‘Round the World! Learn about early leaders in Sgt. Jarke’s Final Chapter, and Cedar Posts & Sardines." 

Before hanging up his law enforcement hat altogether Billy Anders accumulated 31 years experience as an outstanding police officer, SWAT commander; helicopter pilot and the proud recipient of a Master’s degree in Administration of Justice. If that were not enough Billy is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

After 23 years were with the San Antonio, Texas, Police Department, where he finished his career as a Captain; he took a position as a Sergeant/ mountain deputy  with the Otero County Sheriff’s Office, working in and near the Sacramento Mountain village of Cloudcroft, New Mexico.

Billy counts his time at the controls of San Antonio's Foxtrot police helicopter as some of his most memorable years in law enforcement. 

Foxtrot "Were on the Way" is available in Kindle version from Amazon.com or in paperback from outskirtspress.com

I have not reviewed a copy as of yet, but Billy has promised to drop one in the mail soon. Look for a review here in a few weeks.

I encourage everyone to pick up their own copy of Billy's book. As co-author of my own book, Catch the Sky, I can tell you that it is a significant accomplishment and a great feeling when the very last period is put down on the page. I for one am looking forward to reading about working patrol in a Schweizer 300 piston helicopter. Happy reading!

Persistent Surveillance & Airborne Law Enforcement

What can a set of powerful airborne cameras do for you?

What happens when you mount a powerful camera, or an array of powerful cameras, in the belly pod of low cost fixed wing airplane and hang them 6,000’ over a city for 3 to 4 hours at a time? And what if those cameras could record the movement of every single person and every single vehicle in a 25 square mile area all at the same time for that 3 to 4 hour period.

Here is what you get. For every crime that occurs in that 25 square mile area that requires the perpetrator to move from one location to another, either by foot or vehicle, all of his movements are recorded and captured on hard drivers for evidence and review. Very often the suspect’s movements are captured for several hours both before he committed the crime(s) and several hours after he committed the crimes.

For Ross McNutt, the CEO and founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems based near Dayton Ohio, this scenario is a reality that has unfolded numerous times over American cities, often while he has been demonstrating his surveillance system to various government agencies. Specifically McNutt and his eye in the sky surveillance system has captured evidence on over 30 murders that occurred while his cameras were recording the suspect(s) movements before and after the crime. In some cases his cameras have captured the murder itself, as it happened. 

This image of a drive by shooting as it occurred, is from the Persistent Surveillance Systems website.

This image of a drive by shooting as it occurred, is from the Persistent Surveillance Systems website.

Information on the Persistent Surveillance System website lays out the case for his system in more detail. The PSS HAWKEYE system and image analysis have directly let to the apprehension of violent offenders and have assisted law enforcement on over 30 murder investigations since 2007. According to the website officers have used the imagery to do the following;

·                  Backtrack murder suspects to their homes/places of origin

·         Track suspects to every location thy went to before, during and after the crime

·         Identify potential accomplices of the suspect

·         Identify exactly what time and location a suspect or accomplice drove by a ground-based surveillance           camera

·         Dissect entire criminal networks in 3-4 days

One thing the cameras do not do is capture close up images of a person’s face. Suspects are typically not identified by their facial features, but rather by their movements and connections to vehicles and locations.

While in many cases the image evidence may not be accessed by law enforcement until several hours after it has been collected, the system has proven to be effective in near real time, or within minutes after a crime has occurred. During one demonstration flight over the city of Dayton, police officers on the ground received a radio call of a burglary occurring now. The system operator flying above the city checked his cameras and observed a white pickup truck leaving the scene. This information was relayed to police who were able to intercept the vehicle and make the arrest. The stolen property was located in the bed of the truck and the thief was positively identified by a witness. Thanks to the surveillance camera flying above the city, the suspect spent the next few days in the Montgomery County Jail instead of being able to continue his criminal enterprise.

In a similar case in 2012, also over Dayton Ohio, McNutt’s cameras captured a robbery suspect as he moved between his residence to three separate locations that he either cased or attempted to rob. At one of the locations the business owner pulled a gun and chased the suspect away. After one of the crimes the suspect was tracked to a gas station where the stations security camera caught a close up of his face. But police would not have known to check the station’s security cameras if he had not been tracked there by the surveillance system in the sky. This suspect also found himself behind bars at the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton instead of planning more robberies.

Persistent Surveillance systems is not the only company developing or offering such a product. Northrop Grumman has teamed up with Quest Aircraft to offer a complete surveillance package. By matching their camera system called the “Air Claw” with the Quest Kodiak single engine turboprop high wing airplane, they can offer their customers a complete aerial platform capable of tracking multiple targets at once while gathering both before and after (the crime) forensic data.

Northrop Grumman teamed up with Quest Kodiak to off the The Air Claw surveillance platform

Northrop Grumman teamed up with Quest Kodiak to off the The Air Claw surveillance platform

Anticipating there would be detractors with privacy concerns, McNutt, took the unusual step of working with the American Civil Liberties Union to draft his company’s privacy policy. This policy outlines the circumstances under which law enforcement or any other entity can access the data collected by his company’s cameras.

While McNutt concedes he is in business to sell his product,   he also is a true believer that systems such as the one developed by him can have a significant effect on the crime rate in any city that deploys the technology on a routine basis. McNutt points out that when the crime rate drops significantly property values go up, there is increased development and other community benefits such as better schools. He also believes that in the long term it could even reduce the incarceration rates as the system becomes a deterrent to criminals that know if they venture out to commit crime, they will be on camera.

While it is unlikely that a surveillance system such as the one described will ever fully replace the traditional police helicopter, particularly in cities or counties with existing helicopter programs, it could very well provide a much more affordable alternative to smaller government entities. And for the cities that can afford both, it could be an excellent add-on to an existing aviation unit for targeting violent crime in a specific area.

When will Drones Replace Police Helicopter Pilots

Drones are everywhere and they seem to be cheap, right? When will they replace police helicopter crews over American and European cities?

This UAV was developed by Barnard Microsystems Limited in the UK for science applications

Like helicopter pilots everywhere I have sat back and quietly watched the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Drone industries absolutely explode over the past five to eight years. Almost daily it seems there is a new drone or UAV unveiled somewhere with its own unique set of capabilities that make it superior to competitors.

Citizens everywhere are upset at the proliferation of drones and the perceived intrusiveness they bring to personal liberties. Other citizens seem to believe that all helicopter pilots will one day be replaced by drone aircraft.  There seems to be an undercurrent of belief that instead of manned police helicopters patrolling the skies over their cities; it will all be unmanned or autonomous drones.

Many local police and sheriff departments are snatching up their own UAV-Drones. In October of 2011 the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department located just north of Houston Texas, purchased their own MK-II ShadowHawk Unmanned Helicopter from Vanguard Defense Industries for about $220,000. Unlike other smaller battery operated drones, Montgomery County's helicopter has almost a 6' wingspan, weighs 29 lbs and runs on jet fuel. 

Even in my own air unit I recently overheard two of the younger members opining as to whether they would ever be replaced by drones.

While none of us can fully predict what the makeup of the police helicopter crew will be in 30-40 years I think we can make some educated guesses based on the facts at hand.

At any rate, consider this article my opinion on the topic of unmanned drones replacing human helicopter pilots and crews in the coming years. 

This is a quite a large topic with many sub-topics; I will not attempt to cover every single angle in this one article.

In order to begin a talk of drones replacing law enforcement helicopter crews one has to really try to compartmentalize the discussion. Currently the drone market represents everything from tiny nanobots to the newest MQ-8C Fire Scout Fire Scout based on the Bell 407 airframe, all the way up to the autonomous heavy left Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max helicopter currently operated by the Marine Corps, (only two were built and one has since crashed.)

Cost of the new MQ-8C Fire Scout is estimated to be $18.2 million per unit

So to even discuss drones vs. real helicopter crews where do you start? Do you just compare same size drones to same size law enforcement helicopters? Or do you compare capabilities of the drone vs. capabilities of the real helicopter crew?

We have to have a starting point. Through reading, research, aviation experience and a little application of brain power I have come up with three primary points or questions that I think apply most prominently to the discussion. Again the question is; will drones ever replace police helicopter crews.

  • First, what is the purpose of replacing real pilots with pilot-less drones to begin with? Is there even a need to replace human police helicopter crews?
  • Next; is it cost effective to replace real pilots with pilot-less drones? Many people assume that it is but you might be surprised.
  • Finally, while the FAA has been ordered by congress to integrate drones into the U.S. Air Space system by 2015, will the final rule(s) allow pilot-less drones to ever operate over populated American Cities?

Now perhaps the even bigger question to ask is; could an unmanned drone aircraft ever be as effective as a police helicopter crew with two humans, two brains and 4 eyeballs working as a team inside the helicopter, versus a crew sitting at a control station on the ground miles away? While this is perhaps the best question to ask, I am not going to address it in this article simply because I don’t think we need to go that far. There is a ton of published data that speaks directly to the other three points, which we can use to help us reach a reasonable conclusion.

But to answer the question, I don’t really know how one would argue that taking the helicopter crew out of a helicopter and putting them in a ground control station miles away, with all of their visual input coming through a single camera lense, could possible enhance the overall mission.

As a reminder, for this discussion I am not talking about small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) that a police officer or SWAT Commander can pull out of their trunk or command vehicle and deploy, keeping it in line of site below 400’ agl, in order to scout a suspect’s residence or perhaps even search a small field for a lost child. I am talking about replacing entire helicopter crews that operate over virtually every large American City or European City for that matter.

Let me also say at this point that I have no ax to grind with the drone industry or the small UAV industry. Any tool that can help a police officer catch the bad guy, or complete his/her mission safely or find that missing child, is fine by me. 

What is the real purpose of replacing pilots and crews with pilot-less drones?

On the surface it seems as though there are only two real reasons to replace a live pilot with a pilotless drone. The first and foremost is to remove the pilot from hostile combat situations. No doubt that lives of pilots have already been saved since drones took to the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan in the year 2000, (operated first by the CIA.)

The second reason to replace a manned aircraft with a drone is that the amount of time the drone can stay in the air is now limited to fuel instead of pilot-human needs. That means keeping that eye in the sky up there for as long as 14 or 20 hours depending on the drone.

Are police helicopter pilots and crews, operating over American Cities, working in hostile combat situations? For the most part, no they are not. While a police helicopter has been taken down by gunfire before, we are not losing police helicopters to RPG’s the last time I checked. No great need to replace the police helicopter crew for this reason.

Ok, how about loiter time over a city? Now from a law enforcement standpoint I can see the benefit of hanging a powerful Star SAFIRE Flir at 20,000’ over a city, for 15 or 20 hours at a time, and when a priority call comes out you just zoom in on the address and start getting live feed of the unfolding crime. Sounds pretty cool huh; except for those citizens who are really concerned about big brother watching their every move- not so cool for them.

To answer this question we have to look forward to question number three. Will the FAA ever allow unmanned drones to operate over populated American cities? I think by the end of the article you, like me, will conclude that few county and municipal governments will see neither the need nor the cost effectiveness in putting a drone camera above their city for 15 or 20 hour stretches.

While it may seem that we have already answered the question of whether there is even a need to replace police helicopter pilots with drones, these next two areas I think are the real eye openers. 

Moving on to the cost effectiveness of operating pilot-less drones 

Placing a drone in the sky for long periods of time is a wartime tactic. If we are going to discuss replacing piloted helicopter crews with unmanned drones, then I think we need to compare apples to apples.  

Let’s take a quick look at what it takes to operate the most basic drone over hostile territory.  

Enter the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone.

The MQ-1 Predator Drone is a piston powered base line drone with a per unit cost of about $5 million

The very first thing you need to understand is that the Predator Drone falls out of the sky on a fairly regular basis, for a variety of reasons but almost never due to enemy action. I have heard it said that the MQ-1 Predator does not have any redundant systems on board. If the computer takes a dump and re-boots, that particular aircraft becomes a smoking hole in the ground. The following information from Wikipedia seems to confirm this.

Note-while this seems like it should fall under a safety argument, it also falls under the cost effective argument as you will see. Making a reliable unmanned drone with numerous redundant systems is expensive.

“By the start of the United States Afghan campaign in 2001, the USAF had acquired 60 Predators, and said it had lost 20 of them in action. Few if any of the losses were from enemy action, the worst problem apparently being foul weather, particularly icy conditions.  A few of the later USAF Predators were fitted with de-icing systems, along with an uprated turbocharged engine and improved avionics.

As of March 2009, the U.S. Air Force had 195 MQ-1 Predators and 28 MQ-9 Reapers in operation. Predators and Reapers fired missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. A report in March 2009 indicated that U.S. Air Force had lost 70 Predators in air crashes during its operational history. Fifty-five were lost to equipment failure, operator error, or weather. Four have been shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq. Eleven more were lost to operational accidents on combat missions. In 2012, the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk were described as "... the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet."

Here is where we get into the cost effective part

So what is the current cost of a single MQ-1 Predator Drone? For the most basic, piston powered drone that General Atomics makes the costs is 4.5 to $5 million. Remember we are comparing a piston powered fixed wing drone to a turbine powered police helicopter. We haven’t started comparing helicopter drones to police helicopters.

So now we have some understanding of the weaknesses of some drone aircraft, and with that in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to put a drone in the skies over a combat zone.

According to this 2012 US News Article drones are only slightly cheaper overall than conventional fighter jets.

“But a new report released this week by the American Security Project, or ASP, concludes that most military drones are only "generally slightly cheaper to both acquire and operate than conventional fighter jets."

“Despite claims to the contrary, unmanned planes require a large crew: There is one remote pilot, another remote crew member to operate the valuable cameras mounted on many, and "because a drone is not operated individually, but as part of a system consisting of several aircraft, sensors, ground control, and satellite linkages, the number of personnel needed to operate a Predator Combat Air Patrol (CAP) is estimated to exceed 80 people," states the report. It refers to the Predator unmanned plane that has been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and allegedly in Yemen. The number of crew members needed to operate other drone fleets composed of four aircraft can approach 130, ASP concludes.”

Note- the Predator drone has always been sold to the government in groups of 4, along with a ground control station and associated equipment. The $4.5 to $5 million is a per unit costs and does not include the cost of any associated equipment such as the ground control station. Dividing the above numbers by 4, you can see that it would still require an average of 20 to 40 people to operate a single drone as they are currently operated in the combat zone.

Remember too that the MQ-1 Predator and its predecessor the MQ-1C Grey Eagle are the most basic of all military drones. The next step up in the General Atomics line is the MQ-9 Reaper which is powered by a Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop engine with 900 shaft horse power. While we are still talking about fixed wing drones, the Reaper allows us to now compare turbine engine drone to turbine engine police helicopter.

The turboprop MQ-9 Reaper has an estimated per unit cost of $16.9 million

Of course the reaper has an all-around more robust electronics package to for its war time mission but what is the price of the Reaper? The most recent unit cost for an MQ-9 Reaper has been put at 16.9 million. Sure a civilian law enforcement version would not need the weapons targeting systems and such, so the price would be somewhat cheaper. But anyone who thinks a drone aircraft capable of fully replacing a police helicopter crew is going to be an affordable solution has probably not conducted any serious research on the matter.  

The same report concludes that drones have a "greater tendency toward mishaps" than piloted warplanes. There goes your safety factor again.

So back to the first two questions we asked at the beginning of this section. What is the purpose of replacing a police helicopter crew? We determined there is no real need to replace the crew due to hostile environment.

That only leaves us to consider “loiter time over a city” as a reason to replace the police helicopter crew, in my opinion. I think we have shown that the combination of safety concerns (for now) and cost of trying to duplicate a drones loiter time in the combat zone, with loiter time over a populated city, are both cost prohibitive and prohibitive from a safety standpoint. So we have answered our first two questions already, right?

Opening up US skies over populated cities to drones?

While the FAA has been ordered by congress to integrate drones into the U.S. Air Space system by 2015, will the final rule(s) allow pilot-less drones to ever operate over populated American Cities?

The FAA has always gone through great lengths to protect the public on the ground from the aircraft flying above its head. That is why helicopters are generally restricted from operating below 500’ above ground level while over populated areas, and fixed wing are restricted from operating below 1000’ feet agl over populated areas.

Both altitudes are based on the minimum altitude that a safe landing can be conducted in the event of an engine out situation in either aircraft, per the FAA. FAA rules also prohibit a pilot from operating a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft within 500’ or 1000’ respectively, vertically or horizontally, of any person except while taking off and landing. The FAA takes public safety seriously.

To get an idea what the FAA rule might look like, and what drone manufacturers are going to have to do to comply with it, I scoured the internet and came up with this article on Popular Mechanics.com

Popular Mechanics did a great job of going right to the source for the best answers. John Walker is a former FAA director and now co-chair of a federal advisory panel that is developing standards for UAS technology.

As a starting point here is the FAA’s current rule regarding UAVs. Currently the FAA allows unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or (UAV) to fly as long as their operators keep them in sight, fly below 400 feet, and avoid populated areas and airports. These are the small drones that are being heavily marketed to police and law enforcement agencies by the UAV industry. Law Enforcement and government agencies have to register their UAVs and jump through some extra hoops, but that is generally the rule.

But coming up with safety standards for large drones that fly at altitude (think 5, 10, 20,000 feet) it is far more complicated than regulating the operation of an RC plane flying along at treetop level or a little higher, within the operator's line of sight.

The Popular Mechanics article states;

“Aerospace companies and the Pentagon are developing systems that combine radar, cameras, or other sensors with software that will detect aircraft and change course to avoid them. Some of the systems rely on ground stations, while more advanced versions are incorporated into the drones.

This solution comes with engineering drawbacks, however. "By hanging that type of technology on an unmanned aircraft, you start adding a lot of weight and draining a lot of power," says Viva Austin, the civilian official in charge of the Army's ground-based sense-and-avoid project.

John Walker, a former FAA director and co-chair of a federal advisory panel that is developing standards for UAS technology, says technical demands will likely slow the pace of drone adoption. For example, the panel may recommend that the FAA require sense-and-avoid systems that will steer a drone away from potential collision courses, not just perform the simple "climb or descend" instructions current systems give a pilot.

That requires a flight-control computer powerful enough to handle complex algorithms. "What we're talking about for separation assurance is climb, descend, turn left, turn right," Walker says. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of modeling and simulation."

The result? Walker predicts manufacturers and operators will have to invest a lot of money and years of work to meet the pending FAA requirements.”

John Walker’s statements in the above article seem to be in line with how the FAA has always taken public safety at heart. Clearly Mr. Walker does not believe the technology has even been developed yet that will meet the FAA rule he believes will be forthcoming.

To sum up this part of the discussion; it is likely that at some point in the future unmanned aircraft will be operating in some capacity of populated cities, but I think we are many years away from local law enforcement agencies seeing it as a cost effective or necessary alternative to the manned police helicopter as we know it today. In short, if you are a young person hoping for a career in Airborne Law Enforcement, I wouldn’t worry myself over the idea of drones replacing police helicopters any time in the near future.

Check out what a small robotics lab in Pennsylvania, KMel Robotics, is doing with their swarming-flying bots.

Drones already operating over unpopulated areas in the U.S.

Just in case you thought I missed it, yes there are a number of full size drones already operating in the U.S., over unpopulated area. Oh, and some of them have already crashed.

Customs & Border Protection

In October of 2005 the Department of Homeland Security deployed a single Predator B drone for the purposes of border protection.

But the drone’s border duty was cut short when it crashed on April 25, 2006 when the ground based pilot experienced a lock up of the displays on the primary control console and switched to a backup console. The aircraft’s engine was inadvertently shut off and the plane descended and crashed near Nogales Arizona.

Today the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine operate at least seven MQ-9 Predator B (Reaper) drones on both the northern and southern borders as well as a marine version.

According to information provided by U.S. Customs & Border Inspection the currently operate the following drones;

OAM (Office of Air & Marine) operates three Predator B’s from Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona; and two from Grand Forks Air Force Base, in North Dakota.

OAM also operates a maritime variant UAS, called the Guardian. OAM’s two Guardian aircraft fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; and Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.

OAM expects to employ the Predator B throughout the border regions with command and control from a network of ground control stations across the country.

No question that the drone invasion is upon us. But hopefully the coming evolution of the skies will be reasonable and safe one.

Only two of the Lockeed Martin/Kaman Kmax autonomous helicopters were ever built. One has since crashed. Estimated per unit cost-over $20 million

Happy flying!