Do police helicopters fly IFR (instrument flight rules)? This is a question that comes up occasionally. For the most part the answer is NO. The real question is do we fly into clouds or fly into Instrument Meteorological Conditions, and or shoot Instrument Approaches to airports or other locations? Again the answer is generally no, and here is why.
Most police helicopters and crews work police calls between 500 & 800 feet above ground level (AGL). Any higher and we will be less effective. While on routine patrol and not on an actual call, I would venture to say that the majority of police helicopters are flying somewhere between 500 and 1500 feet AGL, (unless they are transiting an air space and have been assigned a higher altitude). The first point is that if we had to use our instruments, to fly into instrument meteorological conditions in order to get to a call, then we are probably not going to be able to see anything, I.E. the ground, in order to be of any assistance.
Oh but there are far greater reasons why most police helicopters don't fly IFR missions. Just because you have a panel full of instruments, does not mean that a particular helicopter, or any aircraft can actually be flown into instrument meatorological conditions, (they must be certified by the FAA and most police patrol helicopters are not).
I recall my first week at flight school talking to my instructor about the school's two instrument trainer aircraft. One instrument trainer was the R-44 and the other was one of their Schweizer 300 helicopters. He then mentioned that they could not actually be flown into clouds or into IMC conditions. As a new student pilot, with very limited aviation knowledge, this dumbfounded me. How the hell can you have a helicopter designated as an IFR trainer, but you can't fly it into IMC conditions? It seemed pretty ridiculous to me.
Well, in those IFR trainers the student pilot wears a hood or a vision limiting device, so that his vision is focused on the instruments. But the instructor, has his head up, looking out of the aircraft making sure you are not going to fly into the side of a mountain, the ground, or another aircraft. Therefore, it can be perfectly useful as a trainer but not certified by the FAA, and unsafe to fly into IMC conditions.
Flying a single pilot helicopter, with NO autopilot features, into fog or clouds is an EMERGENCY! The potential of spatial disorientation is extremely high. With zero outside visual references it is deceptively easy for your brain to give you false signals. Your instruments may tell you that you are flying straight and level but your mind convinces you that you are in a steep dive, or a steep climb, or a steep bank. The opposite could also be true where you are in a dive or bank, and your instruments indicate such, but your mind convinces you that you are flying straight and leve. The urge to follow the false signals in your brain completly overwhelm the information your instruments may be telling you. The results of spatial disorientation in IMC conditions are almost always fatal.
Many police pilots will have an instrument rating, however. Some are helicopter instrument ratings and some are fixed wing instrument ratings. Many departments will operate one or two fixed wing aircraft along with their helicopter fleet. Flying a fixed wing aircraft to a distant airport to pick up a prisoner is a far different thing than flying a helicopter on a police call.
We do however, practice emergency procedures in case we inadvertantly fly into IMC conditions. To begin with the FAA requires 10 hours of simulated instrument training, basically flying under the hood for a total of 10 hours in order to receive your commercial pilot's license, (I do not have an instrument rating). In our unit, and I am sure in most police aviation units, we train regularly on how to survive if you do go inadvertent IMC. This training can be conducted two different ways. During daylight by wearing a vision limiting device or at night time in an area away from city lights where outside visual reference is almost nonexistance. In the latter example the instructor would be wearing Night Vision Goggles.
The instructor will take the controls while the student closes his eyes and puts his or her head down. The instructor proceeds to put the aircraft into varying degrees of flight other than straight and level. The student is then asked to open his eyes, take the controls and recover the aircraft into straight and level flight, or controlled flight away from terrain, etc.
Most police aviation units do have a tool that some would argue is even better than flying IFR, and that is night vision goggles. To put it simple, night vision goggles lets you see the mountain or fog bank that is out there in front of you in what would otherwise be a black hole. They expand your capabilities to a certain degree, but come with a whole new set of limitations. NVGs do not allow you to fly into IMC conditions. You will likely die just as fast with goggles as without, if you go around busting into fog or cloud layers.
For any patrol people who may be reading this just remember. If a police helicopter crew turns down a call due to weather, it's not because we don't want to go to the call. It's because we're really not in the mood to crash and burn today!