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.

Filtering by Tag: law enforcement aviation

Responding to Air Crashes- A part of Police Aviation

Sadly air crashes, and fatal air crashes are a daily part of life in the U.S. and most parts of the world.  Logon on to the NTSB's accident database, and click on the "list of accidents by month" and you will see that not a month goes by that numerous fatal air crashes don't occur.  The sudden loss of any innocent life is always sad and tragic. 

As a part of the aviation community learning of a fatal air crash is not only a sad event, but prompts a certain amount of thought and reflection for the victim(s) and their families.  It is a constant reminder that even though flying is an enjoyable and exhilarating thing for most of us, it can turn deadly in an instant.  In a strange way we honor those aviators who lose their lives by studying what went wrong, and what if any mistakes were made.  In doing so we hope to avoid the same mistakes, and become safer and better pilots in the process.   

Though not a common occurrence, San Diego County has it's share of air crashes.  Some of these crashes happen in remote and rugged parts of the county that I have so often spoken of on this site.  When a crash does happen in a remote or mountianous region of the county it is often a weather related accident.  Depending on the location of the crash, and whether there is access by ground, it is often up to the San Diego Sheriff's Aviation Division to coordinate the moving of investigators into the site, and removal of the victims. 

One such air crash occurred on 10-17-05 on a remote mountain top at the 6,100 foot level, in the far north eastern part of San Diego County.  I was a new TFO and this would be my first air crash.   You can read an account of this incident in the "calls for service-San Diego Sheriff's" section, (should be posted within a day or two of this post.)

In July of 07 one of our patrol aircraft was flying in a canyon, near three sisters falls, when they came across an unreported small plane crash.  Though the crash was not in the far reaches of the county it was still in a very rugged and semi-remote location accessed only by helicopter and hiking trails.  The small Cessna aircraft had two occupants when it went down in the canyon.  It is "speculated" that the plane may have been flying low level in the canyon when something went wrong.  Over the next day or two Sheriff's ASTREA helicopters shuttled investigators in, and flew the bodies of the victims out.

One day my partner and I received a radio call of a small plane that possibly made an emergency landing approximately 9 miles south east of Ramona Airport.  Initial reports were that the pilot was ok.  After a few minutes of searching we located the plane in a relatively flat farm field.  We landed nearby and I got out the contact the pilot, just to make sure he was ok and offer any assistance.  As I reached the plane a friendly old man with a huge grin on his face grabbed me and gave me a big hug.  He was obviously overjoyed to be alive and just felt like hugging someone!  

In talking to the pilot he stated that he had been flying small airplanes for over 30 years, and this was the first time he ever had a complete engine failure.  He was inbound for Ramona airport and was talking to the tower, when the engine just shuttered, and quit.  He managed to put the plane down in the field with not so much as a scratch. 

Responding to air crashes is a part of our mission in the Aviation Division, but it's one mission where I prefer there not be a need. 


Quick peak at Police Aviation

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!