Police Helicopter Pilot

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Fatal AH-1W Cobra Crash Promts Sheriff's Fire Helicoper Response

File photo of a U.S. Marine Cobra Helicopter, Wikimedia.orgTragically, a Marine Corps Cobra Helicopter with two souls on board crashed and burned in an area of eastern San Diego County known as Kitchen Creek (north of Interstate 8) on Tuesday night, just before midnight.  The helicopter was returning from a training mission in Yuma Arizona with live ordinance on board at the time of the crash.  Both Marine Corps pilots on the helicopter, one male and one female, were fatally injured.

The helicopter was assigned to the 3rd Marine Aviation Wing at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and had been training with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit just prior to the crash.  The crash sparked a brush fire which continued to flare up off and on throughout Wednesday.

The location of the crash is within the boundaries of the Cleveland National Forest prompting a response from U.S. Forest Service fire crews as well as the San Diego County Sheriff's Fire Helicopter.  Firefighters and military personnel were concerned with un-exploded ordinance scattered in the area.  

The Sheriff's fire helicopter "Copter 12" remained on scene until late Wednesday evening dropping water on hot spots and flare ups. 

At the time of the crash there were no unusual weather patterns and there was high moon light level.  The high moon light levels provide excellent visibility for flying at night on night vision goggles.  While it is not known for certain at this time whether the crew was flying on NVG's it is quite probable. 

According to unnamed sources at the scene of the crash the crew may have been experiencing engine and/or avionics problems and may have been trying to return the helicopter to their base at Miramar.  That information is preliminary and unconfirmed.  The helicopter was accompanied by a second Marine helicopter when it went down. 

Even though this is a military helicopter crash it still garners much interest and concern from other helicopter pilots, including law enforcement, fire, and EMS pilots.  As law enforcement pilots we often share the same airspace and fly over the same terrain as or military counterparts (while they are here in the U.S.) as well as sharing the same safety of flight issues.  While we don't know the cause of this crash, an engine out at night time, in the back country (even if the pilot is flying on NVG's) is a scenario all helicopter pilots must think about and plan for.

The staff at police helicopter pilot.com extends it's condolences to the families of the two pilots, and thanks them for their service and ultimate sacrifice for our country.  We will follow the crash investigation and provide updates as information becomes available. 

rotor & wing announces 09 safety summit

A119 Koala


Rotor & Wing has announced it's 2009 Safety and Training Summit- Tangible Equipment and Training Solutions.

The Safety and Training Summit will be held April 27-28 at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center in Denver Colorado.

Following are just some of the scheduled activities and training topics:

  • Vendor training sessions.
  • FAA part 60.
  • Night Operations- Economic Realities of going NVG.
  • Hiring & Evaluating- How to get the right people and weed out the potential problems.
  • Sharing mistakes & lessons learned.

Click here for registration and complete safety summit information.

Flying Police Helicopters on NVGs

Of all the tools and equipment in use today in law enforcement aviation few things compare to the night vision goggle for enhancing mission capabilities and safety.  The use of NVGs while flying is a fairly straightforward concept.  Fly into San Diego's back country (or any mountainous region) unaided and you are flying into a black hole.  Now simply flip down the set of night vision goggles attached to the front of your helmet and like magic you now see the mountain in front of you that you might have otherwise flown into. 

Night vision goggle technology was first developed for military use, and came about during World War II.  However it was not until the early 70s that NVG technology began to be adapted for military aviation, primarily by the U.S. Army.  Almost all of what we know today about flying helicopters on NVGs can be attributed to the U.S. Military.  In fact our unit policies and practices regarding NVG flight were taken right out of the U.S. Army's flight manuals. 

Developing a program to fly helicopters on night vision goggles was in no way a simple or easy transition.  Many military aviators paid with their lives as they discovered what worked and what didn't.  Though the concept of flying on NVGs is straightforward, see the mountain or don't see the mountain, the act of operating a helicopter on NVGs, in low level flight, in mountainous terrain is not at all simple or easy.  Night vision goggles do on one hand expand your mission capabilities, but on the other hand bring a whole new set of limitations, along with an entire new skill level that must be learned. 

How do they work:  While this is not a technical article on NVGs let's take a quick look at what they really are, and how they work.  The NVGs that we use are known as ANVIS models, which stands for Aviators Night Vision Imaging System.  Our night vision goggles come off of the exact same assembly line as the goggles presently used by our military helicopter pilots.  

NVGs do not magnify the view in any way as does a set of binoculars.  Magnifying the view would really cause problems for the pilot trying to maintain situational awareness.  NVGs detect ambient light and amplify it many thousands of times.  Light is light regardless of the source.  Whether it is star light, moon light, city lights, flashlights, or spotlights, the goggles pick up the light and amplify it through image intensifier tubes, projecting the image onto a monochromatic green phosphor screen.  Green is used because the human eye is most sensitive to the color green.  The pilot is not actually looking through the goggles as you would a set of binoculars.  The pilot is actually watching two small screens, similar to TV screens in front of his eyes.  From the pilot's point of view however, it appears as though you are looking right through the tubes at the scene in front of you. 

The night vision goggles we wear are powered by nothing more than two AA batteries worn in a battery pack on the back of the helmet.  The pack actually contains 4 AA batteries but two are back up batteries.  As one set of batteries begins to run low, the pilot or TFO will get a signal via a tiny red light within his or her field of view.  The pilot then has plenty of time to reach up to the back of his helmet and flip the switch from one set of batteries to the other.  We often joke that we fly million dollar police helicopters on two AA batteries, but that is exactly what we do. 

Limitations of NVGs:  So if night vision goggles allow you to see into the night, why then do we say that they come with an entire new set of limitations?  Isn't it just that much easier to fly around at night with goggles?  The answer is both yes and no.  The goggles have limitations that the natural eye does not.  Flying on goggles gives you reduced visual acuity, reduced contrast, reduced depth perception, greater visual fatigue, and most goggles limit your view to 40 degrees (40 degree field of view or FOV). 

Knowing how the goggles are actually worn and used, will help to understand how we deal with the limitations of the goggles.  First the goggles are adjusted to a position approximately one inch in front of the eyes.  This gives the person wearing the goggles unaided peripheral vision as well as the ability to look underneath the goggles with direct vision.  To read the instrument panel or to perform other cockpit functions the pilot or tactical flight officer simply looks underneath the goggles just as you can look underneath a set of sunglasses or reading glasses.  We use NVG friendly lighting in the cockpit after dark to allow reading of the instruments with unaided vision. 

Flying a police helicopter over the city at night time does not require night vision goggles for safe operation.  However, many police pilots will continue to wear goggles over city lights for a variety of reasons.  It still enhances mission safety and capability by allowing you to see things you might not otherwise see, but it also gives you distinct advantages over the bad guys who like to use darkness as cover while they go about their criminal enterprise.  Oh and some of our cities out here in California still have mountains in the middle of them. 

Back to the goggles and their limitations.  So flying over city lights at night, on goggles, the pilot is still picking up all of the city lights with his or her unaided peripheral vision, providing more complete situational awareness.  To put it in simpler terms, as I see the city lights moving past me in my peripheral vision, I still have my sense of movement, and direction.  I can still get a strong sense of how fast I am flying (without looking at the flight instruments) and whether I am climbing or descending.  All of these are extremely important visual cues our brains depend on in order to operate the helicopter safely. 

Now let's take the same helicopter and crew and put them over mountainous terrain, with a very bright full moon directly overhead, but zero city lights.  The mission has definitely become more difficult, as there are not as many visual cues coming in from the peripheral vision.  Because of the full moon however, it is so bright that you can see the shadow of the helicopter moving along the ground beneath you when viewed on goggles.  Because of the less visual cues and the 40 degree FOV the pilot must move his head more in order to get the same sense of movement and situational awareness. 

Now, same crew and police helicopter, but zero moon, zero city lights and you need to fly into a dark canyon in the back country and pick up a couple of cold, wet, lost hikers one of which is a small child. (Think it doesn't happen, during my initial NVG training we picked up 5 cold wet hikers, 4 of which were children with the youngest being only about 8 years old.  The senior pilot/NVG trainer flew that mission while I performed the TFO duties.)  Yes we have night vision goggles that amplify the ambient light thousands of times, but this is a much more difficult mission.  One that requires significant training, as well as a tremendous amount of mental focus.  This is without question where the goggles enhances your mission capabilities, but only so far as you properly manage all of the goggle's limitations.  Remember the reduced visual acuity, reduced contrast, reduced depth perception, 40 degree FOV, and visual fatigue.  This is when it all comes into play. 

For a mission such as this you would generally fly to the area and hope to locate the victims with some type of light source.  Even a tiny pen light or a match carried by the lost hiker can easily and quickly pinpoint their position to a helicopter crew wearing NVGs.  Once the subjects are located you would recon the area for a possible LZ, knowing that on a dark night you may not know if there is a suitable LZ until you get down into the area and look for one.  This is going to require an approach to a hover, then the crew can search for a suitable LZ from a hover. 

The approach to an off field, unimproved LZ on goggles is performed "painfully slow."  This requires excellent crew coordination, checking for obstacles throughout the approach.  Because of the reduced visual acuity, contrast, etc., the pilot must constantly move his head back and forth picking up visual cues to the helicopter's movement by looking out to the side.  Once the helicopter and crew are in a hover, they can set about choosing a suitable LZ, with the TFO helping to keep the helicopter and tail rotor clear of obstacles. 

During the entire process the pilot will be managing all of the lighting on the police helicopter to his or her benefit.  Once low level in a dark environment, the Anti-Collision strobe is often turned off as it can be very distracting to the point of being dangerous.  Helicopter position lights can be left on or turned off.  On our MD530F helicopters the position lights are mounted on the very front of the skids.  The red position light on the pilot's side throws off an enormous amount of light once it is amplified by night vision goggles.  Sometimes this light is helpful sometimes it isn't.  Every mission and location is different.  Once in a hover the pilot can use his landing light, and or belly light to light up the area and assist checking for obstacles and LZs.  Use of the belly light or landing light in a hover allows the pilot to transition to unaided vision by looking under the goggles if preferred, or gain back some of his peripheral vision if he chooses to continue using NVGs. 

There are many aspects of flying helicopters on night vision goggles that this article will not address.  In many ways I have only scratched the surface.  How does the brain compensate for reduced depth perception?  There are night illusions while flying on NVGs that a pilot must be aware of if he or she wishes not to become a statistic.  There are some missions that just can't be performed even with NVGs, due to lighting, location, and other environmental factors. 

Though originally developed for military use, there are a multitude of civilians who have been plucked out of cold, wet, dark and treacherous locations thanks to night vision goggle technology.

Night Vision Goggles and crime fighting:  When it comes to simply chasing and catching bad guys the night vision goggle is bit like having a pair of those x-ray glasses you used to see advertised when you were a kid.  Only the NVGs actually work.  Ok, you can't see through clothing, or through walls, or into people's houses, but you can see into dark corners, and fields, and yards and other places where the criminal element often lurks at night. 

Without giving away all of our secrets I will tell you that it is quite difficult for a person on foot to outrun a helicopter, a spotlight and two pair of NVGs, (pilot & TFO).  Of course NVGs are not the only tools we have on board for locating or catching wanted subjects.  The FLIR or Forward Looking Infrared camera senses heat or heat differential in objects within it's view.  You can see then that NVGs and FLIR cameras work on completely different principles, but often seek to perform the same mission only by different means, at least when it comes to locating wanted subjects. 

Most often while the Tactical Flight Officers is performing a FLIR search, the pilot is watching the flir screen with his unaided vision, watching the scene below (where the TFO is searching) on goggles, while never forgetting that his or her first and primary function is the safe operation of the police helicopter.  Even with NVG and FLIR capabilities the criminal suspect is not always caught.  Any cop or crook could tell you that.  But compared to the early years of police aviation where all a police helicopter crew would have is a spotlight and the naked eye, the NVGs coupled with the FLIR make it much more difficult for the criminal suspect to elude capture. 

Night vision goggle technology is now a permanent and essential part of law enforcement aviation.

Are Police Helicopter Pilots Dangerous?

Admittedly this article is in response to a page on the World Wide Web that makes some pretty one sided statements about police pilots. This particular page states that most police pilots are “unsafe”, “endanger the public”, “do not have proper training" are "inexperienced”, “conduct dangerous maneuvers”, and that by training police officers to be pilots it reduces the avenues for “properly trained pilots to gain employment.” It is also stated and inferred that the only way to be properly trained as a helicopter pilot is to be trained by the military.

While this is obviously one person’s opinion, it is on a website that ranks high in the search engines. It has undoubtedly been viewed by thousands of readers, many who have an interest in becoming a police helicopter pilot. So to be fair let’s take a closer look at the subject.

Training-The Federal Aviation Administration issues licenses to all helicopter pilots in the U.S. with the exception of the military. But, if a pilot leaves the military and wishes to fly in the civilian world, he too must be licensed by the FAA. By the way, that is the same FAA that issues the licenses to the pilots who fly the commercial jets you travel on.

Training is essentially the same for every helicopter pilot in the U.S. Each student pilot is required to study and understand the fundamentals of helicopter aerodynamics and flight. All helicopter pilots licensed by the FAA must demonstrate proficiency in all areas of basic helicopter flight, first to his flight instructor then to an FAA examiner. This is in addition to all other areas required to become a private or commercial pilot, such as, airspace, navigation, charts, radio communications, etc.

Now there are two ways that a police pilot can receive initial training, (unless he or she is a former military pilot). He or she can be trained in house by the agencies own flight instructors, which are Certified Flight Instructors licensed by none other than the FAA. Or, they can be sent out to a civilian flight school where they receive training by Certified Flight Instructors, licensed by the FAA.

Regarding Experience- police helicopter pilots very typically fly more hours per week month and year than do military pilots. This is common knowledge in the helicopter industry. Police pilots will fly anywhere from 3 to 6 hours a shift, with 8 hours being a rare occurrence. A police pilot with just a few years of experience will likely have double the flight time of a military helicopter pilot in the same time period.

Let’s go back and talk about flight training for a minute. Remember I said there are typically two ways a police pilot is trained. Well in my case I benefited from both systems, in house and a civilian flight school.

I received my first 24 hours of helicopter instruction from 4 different deputy sheriff- certified flight instructors within my unit. Of the three most experienced instructors one had 6800+ flight hours, one had 5200+ flight hours and one had 4600+ flight hours with the fourth instructor having over 2000+ flight hours. None of these instructors lacked experience. The idea here is to take advantage of both systems. The vast knowledge and experience available in house, combined with the teachings of flight instructors at one of Southern California’s most respected helicopter flight schools.

From this point I was assigned to the flight school full time until I had a total of 150 hours, and the successful completion of my commercial helicopter check ride with the FAA examiner. My first 24 hours were in MD500 series while my flight school time was all in Schweizer 300s. After my commercial check ride I received a MD500D transition and a MD530F transition course both taught by Chin Tu, owner of Civic Helicopters. I was then sent for a 2 day emergency procedures course at Western Helicopters in Rialto Ca., where I received training in all emergency procedures, to include multiple full touch down autos in Western’s MD500D.

After returning to my unit again I received a few hours of additional training to put it all together and confirm in the Sergeant’s mind that I was in fact ready to fly patrol. Once being cleared by the Sergeant I was still assigned to a more experienced pilot for the next two shift rotations. Since then I have returned to Western Helicopters for a 2 day mountain flying course, and more emergency procedures training. Sorry to bore you with all the training, but several times a year a MD factory pilot brings his helicopter to our unit where we receive ongoing emergency 1938481-1556814-thumbnail.jpgprocedures training which includes multiple full touch down autos.

Now all of this only brings me up to my main point in this article. It is absolutely ridiculous to try to label an entire group of individuals, whether they are pilots, or any other group, with one label or to try to paint them all with the same brush. To prove my point let’s take a look around the aviation industry in the U.S. for the past 20 years and discuss a few cases.

One of the most astounding cases actually comes to us from the military. That is the crash of a B52 Bomber at Fairchild Air Force Base in 1994. The bomber, valued somewhere between 100 and 500 million, with four lives on board, crashed into a ball of fire in front of family and friends, after exceeding bank angles and stalling, while practicing for an upcoming air show. The Lt. Col. Who was pilot in command had a long, long, history of intentional safety violations where on at least 6 occasions he flew the bomber at altitudes, bank & pitch angles in clear violation of Air Force regulations as well as the aircraft flight manual.

But with everything we know about the above incident, do I believe that all Air Force or military pilots are dangerous. Of course not! To make such a statement would be laughable.

There is another case that comes to us from Miami Florida in June of 2000. That is the fatal crash of a news helicopter known as “Sky 6”. The helicopter, an MD600 Notar crashed in a residential neighborhood killing the pilot and a news cameraman. As the investigation unfolded it was learned that the pilot had a federal conviction for smuggling drugs using an aircraft. Also, that the pilot routinely performed unnecessary high risk maneuvers to the point that the deceased cameraman had complained to other coworkers two days before the crash.

Immediately before the accident he had been flying alongside another helicopter talking to the pilot over the radio. Other pilots heard the discussion and heard the accident pilot state “watch this”. Here are the NTSB’s findings, “The pilot’s ostentatious display and in-flight decision to perform an abrupt low altitude pitch up maneuver (aerobatic flight)”- causing the main rotor blades to strike and chop off the tail boom. A dangerous pilot indeed, but do we label all news helicopter pilots as dangerous because of his actions? No!

Let’s take a look at one more case that comes from the commuter airline industry here in the U.S. In October of 2000 a Pinnacle Airlines, twin engine Bombardier CRJ200, a 50 seat aircraft with two pilots and no passengers crashed about two and a half miles short of the runway in Jefferson City Mo. killing both pilots. The plane was on a repositioning flight and since there were no passengers on board the Captain and First Officer decided to take the aircraft to the very upper limits of it’s altitude cruising capability of 41,000 feet. This aircraft would normally cruise at 37,000 feet but there was word of an unofficial "410" club at Pinnacle Airlines, of other pilots who had taken their aircraft to 41,000 feet.

Even prior to reaching this altitude there were a number of intentional pitch up maneuvers in the aircraft that were beyond all published angles of pitch. The cockpit voice recorder recorded laughing and joking in the cockpit. The pilots switched seats and one went to the back of the plane to get a coke to celebrate. Soon both the aircraft and the pilots were in trouble. Because they were operating on the edge of the aircraft’s altitude limits both engines subsequently flamed out and the aircraft stalled. An emergency was declared but the pilots did not reveal that they had double engine failure until 13 minutes later and after passing up 4-5 airports where they could have potentially glided the aircraft to a safe landing. They finally began getting vectors for Jefferson City Missouri airport. They didn’t make it, and they paid for their mistakes with their lives. But, in light of this crash do I think that most airline pilots are unsafe and endanger the public. Again the answer is no, to make such a statement would be ridiculous.

The purpose of looking at these other incidents is not to point fingers, but instead to point out that there are a very small percentage of pilots in all fields that certainly could be considered dangerous. Just like there are a small percentage of police officers, doctors, surgeons, fireman, and any other group or classification who will operate irresponsibly.

When it comes to police helicopter pilots I would suggest that the opposite is true. Most veteran law enforcement officers have a long history of evaluating and minimizing risk, as well as sound judgment and decision making so that they can go home to their families every night. It is from this group of veteran officers, which have impeccable service records that most agencies select their tactical flight officers and pilots. Their years of hard work and professionalism on the streets are carried over into the cockpit, thus providing a law enforcement resource that protects the public not endangers it.