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.

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The Helicopter Safety Brief: Not a Time to Sugar Coat Things- Helicopters are Still Crashing!

Both the FAA and Unit Policy requires that you give a safety brief to any passengers you place in your aircraft.  In the helicopter unit, the part of the brief I focused on most was the potential for items to depart a person's body, or depart the cockpit of the helicopter and go into the tail rotor.  I always made sure that my passengers knew that if something goes into the tail rotor, the chances of us all dying were pretty high. 

As professional pilots most of us spend a considerable amount of time, and mental energy studying various crashes, why they occurred and how they could have been prevented.  We talk to other pilots, old pilots, and mechanics.  We swap stories that we hear, study news stories, and we follow up on crashes by studying the NTSB's results or professional articles written by experts. 

There is one crash sequence that has plagued helicopters since the beginning, and that is items departing the cockpit or cabin of the aircraft and flying into the tail rotor.  Most helicopter experts agree that the tail rotor is one of the most vulnerable and important components of the ship.  It not only spins about 4 times faster than the main rotor, but it's location way out at the end of the tail boom is critically factored into the helicopter's weight and balance.  When tail rotors and their gear-boxes depart helicopters the situation is almost instantly tragic. 

There is a story recounted by many helicopter flight instructors of a helicopter many years ago, that was taken down by the tiny aluminum pull tab from a soda can.  Remember the old style pull tabs on soda cans that came off in your hand.  The way the story goes is that investigators found a part of a pull tab in the leading edge of a piece of the tail rotor recovered from the fatal crash.  Tab departs cockpit, embeds itself in leading edge of tail rotor blade, causes tail rotor to delaminate and come apart, throws tail rotor out of balance causing tail rotor and gear box to depart aircraft, helicopter now severely out of balance and unable to maintain level flight.  Many tail rotors today have metal strips on the leading edge to prevent delamination, but this does not protect against larger objects. 

Another flight instructor tells the story of a preacher who traveled by small helicopter.  According to this instructor, the preacher's bible which had been setting on the passenger seat, departed the aircraft and took out the tail rotor.  Once again the results were immediately fatal. 

This week I received an email from one of our helicopter mechanics who is also a pilot, and has worked for many years in the industry.  The email contained the preliminary NTSB report of a fatal (x3) helicopter crash that occurred in Kamiah Idaho on August 31st of this year.  The email further indicated that the pilot was a friend and was well known to a couple of our mechanics.  Tragically, the 9000 hour pilot and both passengers lost their lives when a metal clip board, belonging to a state employed biologist, departed the cabin the contacted the tail rotor.  There is no doubt that this pilot was profoundly aware of the consequences of an items going into the tail rotor.  And while I don't know for sure, it is just as likely that the passengers were briefed about these exact dangers.  Yet somehow it still occurred and three lives were lost. 

File photo of a military version of the Hiller UH 12E; Wikimedia.com photoOnce again we learn from the mistakes of others.  It is not enough to simply brief your passengers, we must be ever vigilant and know that the cockpit and all items in it are secure.  It is not a time to be nice! 

The preliminary report follows;

NTSB Identification: WPR10FA440
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Tuesday, August 31, 2010 in Kamiah, ID
Aircraft: HILLER UH 12E, registration: N67264

Injuries: 3 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.

On August 31, 2010, about 0920 Pacific daylight time, a Hiller UH 12E helicopter, N67264, was substantially damaged when it impacted utility lines, a travel trailer, and the ground in Kamiah, Idaho, about 35 minutes after departure. The commercial pilot and the two passengers, both of whom were employees of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), were fatally injured. The flight was operated under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the contract survey flight.

According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the helicopter was manufactured in 1965, and was converted to turbine power in 1981. According to the owner of the company that owned the helicopter, the pilot was an employee of that company, and IDFG had chartered the helicopter for a wildlife survey of a local river. The pilot had approximately 9,000 total hours of flight experience, including approximately 300 in the accident helicopter make and model.

The helicopter departed from the company's private facility in Clarkston, Washington, with the female passenger in the right seat, the pilot in the center seat, and the male passenger in the left seat. The helicopter was supposed to make an en route fuel stop at a company fuel depot, and then conduct the survey. The flight was not scheduled to land at Kamiah. Per the IDFG contract, the helicopter participated in an automated flight following program, and the pilot could communicate on a state-sponsored radio communications network called "StateComm." Shortly before the accident, the pilot announced on StateComm that he was landing in Kamiah. No further transmissions were received from the helicopter.

Several eyewitnesses in Kamiah reported that they observed objects separating or falling from the helicopter just prior to impact. The main wreckage, which consisted of the cabin, tail boom, and main rotor system, was located in a driveway of a residence. A debris path that was oriented back along the helicopter's flight path, and that measured approximately 1,500 feet in length, was comprised of various items from the helicopter. Some of the earliest items in the debris path included segments of a metal clipboard that belonged to one of the passengers, and the outboard segments of the two tail rotor blades. One of the tail rotor blades exhibited leading edge crush damage that was continuous across the fracture line, and the clipboard segments exhibited crease lines and paint transfer marks consistent with the tail rotor blade dimensions and colors.

About the time of the accident, the recorded weather at an airport 49 miles west-northwest of Kamiah included winds of 4 knots from 020 degrees; temperature 14 degrees C; and few clouds at 6,500 feet.Index for Aug2010 | Index of months

What's The Best Kind Of Mistake To Make In Helicopter Aviation?

My first solo in a Civic Helicopters Schweizer 300 I was asked by someone recently what one of my worst decisions, or worst mistakes was during flight school.  Well it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision but there was this thing with the oil dipstick one day.  It went something like this.  

When it’s time for a member of our unit to start helicopter flight training they usually get a little bit of in house training from our own CFI’s, then they are then sent out to Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad Ca. for full time flight training up until they are a commercial VFR helicopter pilot.  Their training will take place exclusively in the Schweizer 300 piston powered helicopter since it is the closest training helicopter to what we fly, the MD500 series, (both previously Hughes Helicopter products).   It is sort of an unwritten right of passage for the helicopter pilot in training to at some point stop in at the base in his piston powered trainer, along with his CFI during training.  Just a fun way to check back in with the guys and humble yourself in your little reciprocating flying machine.  

I was at a point in my training where I was close to my private check ride so I had completed several solo flights, but neither my title nor experience even rose to the level of “private pilot.”   Even though I had already made one appearance at my unit base, I actually needed to stop in and grab a couple of items for my upcoming check ride.  Plus this would also give me another hour or so of solo time toward completing that portion of required flight time.  It was a Friday, and it was going to be an evening flight since that was when the helicopter was available.  It would be a quick flight to ASTREA base, grab what I needed, and a quick flight back to Palomar Airport before the sun was down.  If there were any significant delays getting off the ground, it would throw my whole schedule out of whack.  As a solo student pilot I absolutely had to be back on the ground before dark.  

Just as I feared things started falling a little behind schedule.  The previous student was a little late coming back from his flight, the fuel truck driver was a little slow getting the helicopter re-fueled for me, etc.  I commenced my pre-flight knowing that I was definitely on a time schedule, but not wanting to rush.  I actually reminded myself several times not to rush, because that is when things get missed, and when things can go wrong.  I had read all of the stories about people rushing their pre-flight inspections or the actual flight, and bad things happening.  I was very aware of the pitfalls of speeding through a pre-flight.

As expected the helicopter needed some oil.  It would have been extremely rare if it did not need oil.  That’s just the nature of piston engine helicopters.  Here is where things started to go down the wrong track.

Now Civic had three different Schweizer 300 helicopters in their fleet but normally only one or two would be flown at any given time while the third one waited in reserve.  It was not uncommon to fly the exact helicopter for several weeks before you made a switch.  Two of their 300s had the extra long oil dipstick so that the handle could be positioned in a location easy access.  The third Schweizer did not have the extension, so it was a very short dipstick and you had to kneel down and reach back in to the engine to remove it.  The helicopter I was flying today was the one with the short dipstick, but I was coming off of several weeks of flying a helicopter with the long dipstick.  My habit had always been to lay the long dipstick on the pilot’s step while I added oil.  This way, It was almost impossible for me to forget the dipstick as I would have to either step on it, or step over it in order to enter the pilot seat.  So far it had been a fool proof method.  

On this pre-flight when I removed the short dipstick and confirmed that the helicopter needed oil I did something slightly different.  Attached to the inside of the pilot’s step on this helicopter was a small tray or shelf.  It was flush with the pilot‘s step but shorter.  For whatever reason my mind must have thought that the shorter dipstick fit better on this shorter tray, than it did on the pilot’s step.  With hardly a conscious thought I placed the dipstick on the tray next to the pilot’s step.  

To place oil in this particular helicopter one had to utilize a funnel with a long tube.  The oil itself was pumped out of a 50 gal drum into a reusable metal oil can which had a flexible spout and a trigger to release the oil.  Slightly more involved than putting oil in the old Toyota.  The big question here is why would you not replace the dipstick immediately after filling the crankcase?  Well one hand was holding the oil can, and the other hand the funnel and an oil rag.  If was easier and cleaner to store the funnel and can back in the oil shed, then return to replace the dipstick and tidy up any oil drops on the helicopter airframe.  This system had worked perfect up until today.  

Pre-check complete, engine run up, got ATIS, tower clearance for a south departure and I was soon clearing the trees and power lines as I climbed out and pointed toward Gillespie Field.  Actual flight time between the two airports was barely going to be 20 minutes.  The helicopter’s  instruments were normal as I called up Gillespie Tower and received landing clearance to ASTREA base.  And all appeared well as I focused on making that perfect landing on pad #1, just in case any of my co-workers were watching.  After a minute or so of cool down I cut the engine and prepared to exit the helicopter.  I was still feeling confident in my solo abilities, when I noticed one of our maintenance technicians- head cocked to the side with a funny look on his face, staring at my helicopter.  Oh this can’t be good……

I stepped out of the helicopter and viewed what might as well have been the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill as far as I was concerned.  Oil everywhere!  Every imaginable part of the left rear airframe was covered with oil and it was now dripping down onto the concrete landing pad from about 100 different points.   As I sank deeper into student pilot depression, co-workers, and mechanics began to stream out of the building to see what the side show was all about.  

Now this is the point where you must convince everyone present that you  (me) fully understand and take responsibility for the stupidity of your mistake.  I find that a long string of inappropriate language directed at myself usually does the trick.  Seriously though, all one can do is say “yup I screwed that one up big time!”  And then set about figuring out how and why it occurred and what changes need to be made to ensure that it never happens again.  

I remember making that phone call to my flight instructor back at Civic to appraise him of the blunder.  A thorough check of the flight line and the adjacent dirt lot (which was also under the departing flight path) failed to produce the missing dipstick.  My training helicopter would have to remain on the ramp overnight at the base, fully advertising my screw up to anyone who was not already 10-4 on it.  I caught a ride back up to Civic Helicopters in the back seat of the duty patrol helicopter , feeling much like a cowboy without a horse or perhaps a sailor without a ship.  The following day the Civic maintenance department dug out a back up dipstick from storage and flew it down with an extra pilot and some extra oil to retrieve the helicopter.  

Nothing damaged, no one injured, and one more lesson learned.  The best kind of mistake to make in aviation.  Somewhere between KCRQ and KSEE there is an expensive Lycoming HIO-360-D1A
dipstick waiting to be found.  

Letter From Frustrated Helicopter Mechanic To Engine Company a Classic!

For years now I have heard stories about one of our retired helicopter mechanics who was quite a unique character.  When he was not coming up with ingenious contraptions or fixes to helicopter mechanical problems, he would occasionally fire off a letter on issues that he believed should be corrected. 

Now anyone who works in or around helicopters knows that they are notorious for oil leaks.  We have all heard terms such as "operational seepage" or funny quips like "a helicopter is nothing more than a thousand spare parts flying in formation around an oil leak."  Well one day Bob finally had enough of the standard helicopter turbine engine oil leak and fired off the following letter, (recently dug out of an old file in the maintenance hangar).


XXXXXXXXX RotorCraft, Inc.

El Cajon, Ca. 92020

August 21, 2000

"Dear Folks:

This is in Reference to your expensive 250C20 series engines.  You are probably aware of the tendency of these engines to leak oil.  Much of our maintenance effort is spent on trying to fix these never ending leaks. 

I think I may have come upon a remedy for the above problem.  For about fifty years I have operated lawn mowers.  These mowers have a vertical shaft that drives a blade.  This mechanism is immersed in oil.  In spite of poor maintenance, sudden stoppage, over speeding (one turned so fast that it almost went into a hover), lack of oil, too much oil, and imbalance and out of track blades, etc.  I have yet to see a drop of oil on the surface where the machines were parked.  In light of the above I think you should either merge with Briggs & Stratton or hire one of their engineers. 



P.S.  You might pass this on to MD Helicopters we have the same problem with their gear-boxes.  I'm sure they would be grateful."


See a copy of the original here.  I thought this letter was just too good not to share.

San Bernardino Sheriff's Aviation will Request 5 Surplus Huey Helicopters

On Tuesday of this week the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors gave the go ahead for the Sheriff's Department to pursue five surplus UH-1H Huey helicopters from the Department of Defense.  The SBSD will make the request through the State of California ,Governors Office of Emergency Services who administers the program on the state level.

Wikimedia.org file photo of a UH-1H Huey (Bell) Helicopter

According to Lt. Dave Gregory of the Sheriff's Aviation Division, the helicopters will be refurbished and used for a variety of missions, to include transporting narcotic officers, SWAT officers, evidence, or even potential casualties. 

The Sheriff's office will receive the helicopters at no cost to the tax payers of San Bernardino County.  This is a huge benefit as each helicopter has an estimated value of between $500,000 and 1 million dollars. 

Giving surplus military helicopters to local law enforcement agencies is nothing new however.  Many smaller sheriff's departments and police agencies started their aviation units strictly with military surplus aircraft, (operated under public use rules.)

The DOD is releasing approximately 100 aircraft to various law enforcement agencies this year, and are eager to get rid of them according to Lt. Gregory.  The governors office has called several times to ensure that they are still interested in accepting the helicopters. 

The San Bernardino Sheriff's Aviation Division already operate 2 Huey helicopters which are about 40 years old.  The 5 helicopters they stand ready to receive are about 10 years newer than the two they are currently operating.  It is unlikely that all 5 helicopters will be put into operation.  It is much more probable that 2 to 3 will be put into operation and the others used for spare parts.  This approach is fairly common for agencies who receive surplus aircraft. 

About San Bernardino Sheriff's Aviation Division:  San Bernardino has the honor of being the largest single county in the United States of America, encompassing approximately 20,000 square miles.  It is about 4-5 times larger than Los Angeles County, and stretches all the way to the Arizona Border.  The highest peak in the county is San Gorgonio at 11,500 ft. 

To provide effective law enforcement services to such a large county requires a number of aviation assets.  In addition to the two Huey Helicopter's mentioned above, San Bernardino Sheriff's aviation division operates the following helicopters/aircraft;

6 ASTAR B-3 Eurocopters

1- MD 500E Helicopter

1- Bell 212 Helicopter

1- Sikorsky H-3

2- Fixed wing aircraft

The Aviation Division is made up of a Captain, Lieutenant, 2- Sergeants, 1- Corporal, 9- Deputy Pilots, and 7- Deputy Flight Tactical Officers. 

In addition to  providing law enforcement services, SBSD is the primary Search and Rescue agency in the county.  The unit is based at the Rialto Ca., airport. 

Information on Starting a police helicopter or law enforcement aviation unit

Glenn Grossman photo used by permissionThinking 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.

Flight Design CT, new Light Sport AircraftOne 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.