So Exactly How Does One Become a Police Helicopter Pilot?
How Can You Get A Job Flying A Police Helicopter
So how does one become a police or law enforcement helicopter pilot? This is a question I see regularly posed in forums and on web pages across the web. It’s a question that has many answers due to the fact that every agency in the U.S. (and probably the UK) operates slightly different. They are different because their budgets are different, and each has its own set of policies and procedures that have been developed over the past 30-40 years. One department may decide to organize an air unit in a particular way for budgetary reasons, such as hiring a civilian pilot or even contracting both the actual helicopter and pilots from a private company. Then they would simply add the sworn law enforcement observer, (also known as Tactical Flight Officer).
Other agencies may choose to hire a very experienced civilian pilot, but require him or her to complete a police academy (which can be as long as 6 months) and complete initial patrol training on the streets. In other words they take an experienced helicopter pilot, make him or her a police officer, then place them into the air unit as a police helicopter pilot. I met a pilot recently with the Arizona Department of Public Safety who was hired just this way. He already had years of experience flying helicopters in the Coast Guard and other places but was required to attend the Arizona DPS Academy.
The most common method by far to become a police helicopter pilot, particularly among large agencies, is to be selected into the unit first as an Observers/Tactical Flight Officer. And the vast majority of agencies select their TFO’s from their experienced law enforcement officers. When it is time to train a new pilot, they will select from the current pool of tactical flight officers who have been successful in that role. This is exactly the path that lead me to becoming a helicopter pilot in my department's aviation unit.
What Is It Going To Take To Become A Police Helicopter Pilot
Let's take a brief look at what it's going to take to become a police helicopter pilot. If you have spent any time on this site then you have probably already heard me say that it is going to be a long term goal if you are just starting out. That is if you are just starting out as either a law enforcement officer, or as a student helicopter pilot. Either way it is a worthwhile goal that is very rewarding for the person who is willing to work for it. But let's look at some examples.
I once received an email from one of my former civilian flight instructors who was at the time flying complex IFR certified helicopters for Petroleum Helicopters Inc. in the Gulf of Mexico. He mentioned that the Sonomish County (Ca.) Sheriff's Office was hiring a civilian pilot. Their requirements were, 2000 hours of turbine (engine) helicopter time, 200 hours of long line time (slinging items from beneath the helicopter), 300 hours of mountain flying experience and 100 hours of unaided night time experience. Though he was flying medium lift, complex helicopters on IFR missions, he apparently did not yet have the experience they were looking for. Now another police agency may ask for a different level of experience, but this is an example of a particular law enforcement agency looking to hire a civilian pilot.
Helicopter Pilot Ratings
But for the student pilot just starting out we have to back up and look at how you land that first helicopter flying job. Most civilian helicopter pilots will obtain their private, IFR (instrument rating) commercial, and CFI (certified flight instructor) ratings, while going to flight school. Some will go on to obtain what is call "double II" and that is their instrument instructor rating. That is a lot of ratings at a significant cost (think of a student loan for at least $50,000). The instrument instructor rating is not mandatory but many student pilots do go on to get this rating. The student pilot normally then becomes an instructor, often at the same school where he or she studied. This is their first actual flying job.
Most helicopter companies require you to have either 1000 or 1500 hours of Pilot in Command flight time, depending on the company, before they will hire you. Why so many flight hours? Most will tell you that this is the standard their insurance companies have set. And if a company has set a minimum number of flight hours they generally will not even talk to you until you have fully met that minimum requirement. It is only at this point that most pilots will begin building their turbine engine time because up to now virtually all of their student and instructor time will be in piston engine helicopters. Now there will be variables to everything I say here but this will give the young student pilot who is just starting out, some idea of what it is going to take to land a job as a police pilot (in the U.S.).
Sworn Police Helicopter Pilot
Now let's look at the sworn law enforcement path to becoming a police helicopter pilot. As previously stated this is by far the most common way in which someone is selected into a police aviation unit. But let's be realistic. A young person whose dream it is to make a living as a helicopter pilot, does not normally want to put their flying career on hold for 5 or 10 years while working as a police officer and waiting for a spot in the aviation unit, (although this could be a very smart approach, look for a future article on this). At the same time, most rookie police officers and deputy sheriff's are probably not even thinking of the aviation unit on the day they are sworn in. I certainly wasn't.
So let's say someone decides to take the sworn path to becoming a police pilot. How long can he or she expect to wait for a position, and what are some of the other considerations to this approach. The first consideration is that you could spend 20 years on a department and may never be selected for the aviation unit. There are no guarantees, even if you have aviation experience or are already a helicopter pilot.
On most agencies you are going to have to compete for these positions. In other words there is a selection process where points are given for seniority, experience on the department, etc., and then ultimately an interview. Certainly some weight will be given to aviation experience, and some aviation experience may be mandatory with certain agencies (such as a private fixed wing license). But my point is that most agencies learned long ago to look at much more than your aviation experience or ratings. Your personality, your ability to make decisions under pressure, your reputation as a quality employee, your work ethic, is all very important. I can tell you right now that no one cares what kind of a pilot rating you have or how many helicopter flight hours you have if you can't get along with your fellow officers, (this is much bigger than you could possibly imagine, more on this later).
In my case I had 15 years on the department when I began interviewing for a position in our aviation unit. It took three interviews over a period of five years before I was selected. The person with the least amount of time to be selected to our unit (in recent memory) had about 12 years on our department, but was in fact a former military helicopter pilot. On our agency only two years of patrol time is required before you are eligible to apply to the unit, but the reality is that you are most likely going to need 10 to 12 years of experience to score high enough to be selected. I have seen and heard of other agencies where officers have been assigned to the air unit in as few as 7 years. (I am sure there are some with less).
UPDATE- March, 2013: Generally speaking the inner workings of a large police or sheriff’s department are very slow to change. So if historically the average time it takes for a deputy or officer to advance into the air support unit is 10-12 years, you can probably expect that trend to continue. I am happy to report however that two of the last three deputies who transferred into our unit each had just over 5 years on the department. What happened that they were able to beat the 10 to 12 year average? I am not quite sure I can answer that. I was not in the unit, or a part of the selection process at the time. One deputy came in with essentially no aviation experience while the other came in with his commercial helicopter and fixed wing ratings already in his pocket. There is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time.
There is no question that the deputy who already had his fixed wing and helicopter commercial pilot ratings, benefited from these during the selection process. But as I have stated before and will continue to state, this is not enough to overcome a bad reputation on the department. Fortunately for this deputy he came not only with his aviation ratings, but with an outstanding reputation as a positive, hardworking employee. He came highly recommended.
Keep in mind that on my department no previous aviation experience is required, therefore anyone with a few years on, can be your competition. If you are a sworn officer on an agency where they require you to already be a pilot, fixed wing or helicopter, then your competition is less and you may see shorter wait times. But also remember, there has to be a position available in the unit. The larger the agency then typically the larger the air unit will be resulting in more movement. More movement means more opportunity for you to land a job in the aviation unit. There are too many variables to consider in this one article, so look for many more articles on this subject in the near future. This should however give anyone wishing to become a police helicopter pilot a starting point with which to begin putting together their plan.
Good luck and see you soon!
You may also be interested in How To Become A Pilot a much broader discussion on pursuing a helicopter or fixed wing pilot career.