For many in police work the field is already an exciting, adventurous and rewarding career. Most police officers or deputy sheriffs can't imagine doing anything else. But when police work is combined with flying helicopters, a case can be made that it is the ultimate dream job for those who love to fly.
You could go further and argue that being a law enforcement officer in the sky has all of the positive aspects of police work, with almost none of the negative. The police or sheriff helicopter crew shows up on scene and does their best to help take the bad guy into custody. When the "all clear" signal comes across the radio the helicopter crew simply flies away. There are no hours and hours of report writing, no nasty-cop hating suspects to process and book, and no drunks puking in your back seat.
Like all police work there is a certain satisfaction from knowing that you were in the right place at the right time and if it was not for you in the police helicopter overhead, the suspect would have gotten away. This is to take nothing away from any ground officer. It goes without saying that they have the harder job, they do most of the real work, and the helicopter is primarily there to support and supplement their efforts. But there are those incidents where the helicopter is absolutely crucial to taking the bad guy off the street.
The vast majority of law enforcement aircraft are in fact helicopters. Though fixed wing aircraft play an important role, the helicopter is the workhorse for most police aviation units. Therefore, let's take a very basic look at the job of a police helicopter pilot vs. the job of a civilian helicopter pilot. There are obviously some distinct differences, and possibly some distinct advantages.
Most civilian helicopter pilots I talk to express that they would love to have my job. It is certainly the opinion of many pilots, both law enforcement and civilian that overall, the police helicopter pilot may well be the best helicopter flying job out there.
Aviation is an expensive business. Flying helicopters is even more expensive. Civilian helicopter businesses can sometimes tread a fine line between being profitable and being in the red. For every minute those rotors are turning someone is paying. When the customer stops paying the rotors stop turning. What this really means is that civilian helicopter pilot jobs are likely to be much more regimented or structured in their flight time and mission than police helicopter flying jobs.
A civilian tour helicopter pilot conducting a 30 minute sight seeing tour is going to be back on the ground at almost exactly the 30 minute mark. In contrast once the police helicopter skids leave the ground, that crew is fulfilling their mission to support and assist the law enforcement officers on the ground whom they serve. A big part of that mission is simply being overhead during peak times that crimes occur.
There is a certain amount of stability within most large police aviation units that cannot always be found withing a civilian operator, (I am speaking in generalities, certainly there are very large stable civilian operators whose budgets would probably drawf some Law Enforcement budgets). Many of the larger law enforcement agencies have well funded aviation units that have been in existence for well over 30 years. Both the law enforcement agency and the tax payers they serve determined long ago that their aviation units are a vital and critical part of public safety. Though nothing is guaranteed, it is fairly certain that most large police aviation units will still be going strong 30 to 40 years from now.
As a law enforcement pilot I for the most part don't worry about my agency's aviation division going under. That may not be the case for a pilot flying for a small civilian operator. As a side note- this does not mean I believe we in law enforcement aviation have carte blanche to operate as we see fit. To the contrary, we must operate with the best interest of the citizens and the law enforcement officers, whom we serve, in mind at all times.
I recently heard a high time pilot discussing the hardships of being a new civilian helicopter pilot. The point was made that it is the entire nature of helicopter flying that requires it to be most needed in remote, uncivilized locations. Thus young up and coming helicopter pilots can often be found sleeping on the ground next to their aircraft, or in an out of the way motel room in a no name town.
I was amused at another story of a young helicopter pilot who landed a new job at a tour company. Between flights of tourist the young pilot found himself re-fueling the helicopter while simultaneously eating a snack and relieving his full bladder. When the boss came around the corner and observed this level of dedication, the new pilot got a big thumbs up and a "your going to do great at this job."
So this has been a fun look at law enforcement aviation in general and some of the basic differences in police and civilian helicopter flying. To all my fellow helicopter pilots (civilian and L.E.) tactical flight officers and future police pilots, fly safe!