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.

Part II  Sworn Path to Becoming a Police Helicopter Pilot


The Real Low Down on Becoming A Police Helicopter Pilot

This article is really the meat and potatoes of how to land a job as a police pilot. But the previous articles are just as important. Develop a reputation as someone with a bad attitude or a poor work ethic and you can forget about this section, because it won’t matter.

Let’s Do Some Strategic Planning

This article could be considered a strategic planning session on how to eventually land that position as a police helicopter pilot. There are some definite does and don’ts when it comes to applying and interviewing for such a position. Much of what we will discuss can be applied to any agency, for a couple of reasons. First these are general strategies, tips, suggestions, and ideas. Second, it doesn’t matter what agency you work for you are going to be dealing with humans, and human nature, in your quest to land that position. So let’s get started!

First I think we must be very honest with ourselves. There are always going to be more people standing in line for a position in the air unit than positions available. So it is a reality that your best efforts and strategies may not ever result in you being selected for such a position. One of your first strategies should be to conduct an honest self-evaluation.

Start With a Self-Evaluation

Now I am not encouraging you to sell yourself short, or to under estimate your abilities or self-worth even though most of us do to some extent.  But, how are you performing in your current position? Are you someone who is truly respected by your co-workers? Do you have a reputation as a hard worker? Everyone has a reputation, what is yours? As I mentioned in the previous articles, your reputation is probably your greatest asset. In most cases it is more important than any aviation knowledge or experience you already have, (we will discuss minimum requirements in a moment).

Here are some descriptors of a good reputation; you are a “hard worker”, you are “squared away”, “you have your act together”, “you can walk and chew gum at the same time”, you are friendly and easy to get along with, “he/she seems like a sharp guy/gal”. I have never heard anyone say “we want the smartest person for the job”. Common sense, good judgment, ability to “think on your feet”, ability to multi-task, hard worker, and easy going are all excellent traits to have going for you. Do be positive and set your goals high, but also be well grounded.

Minimum Qualifications for Your Air Support Unit

Your very first strategy should be to learn the minimum qualifications for that particular position. For example my agency requires a minimum of 2 years patrol experience and completion of department probation. That’s pretty much it. No previous aviation experience is required. Other agencies may require you to go out on your own and obtain any number of aviation ratings. For example it is my understanding that the San Diego Police Department requires you to have a fixed wing IFR rating before even being considered for selection as a pilot. Minimum requirements are just that. If you don’t meet them now, then you will need to get to work until you do meet them.

Something else to consider however, is the amount of experience and skills necessary to be competitive for the position you are going for. In other words the minimum qualifications for my agency are 2 years patrol, but no one gets into our unit with 2 years on the department or patrol. Remember you are going to be competing for these positions with other members of the department. Typically there is a rating system to rate applicants for the years on the department, positions they have held, etc. These points are then combined with interview scores to give an overall rating. On most agencies there is still some discretion given to the unit commander on who is selected. The unit commander is not always forced to take the person with the highest score, but rather select from the top two or three names.

On our department it is the top six names. So while the positions are very competitive, you can see where your outstanding reputation is going to come into play. On our agency you don’t necessarily have to be the one with the most experience or the most aviation ratings, but you have to be in the top six and have the best reputation. You make that happen and you have probably just earned yourself a spot in or air support unit.

Historically on my department, no one made it into the air unit before they had at least 10 years on our department before being selected. That is just typically how long it took to competitive.

Update- March 2013: Two of the last three deputies selected into our air unit had just over 5 years on each. One had several aviation ratings and one did not. I cannot point to any clear reason why, or how, they were able to beat the average by almost 5 years, but they did. It serves as a reminder that records are made to be broken!

Go on a Fact Finding Mission About Your Air Support Unit

I was told by a sergeant early in my career that you should attempt to learn as much as possible about any position you are going to apply for. This is certainly true with a position in the helicopter or aviation unit. What does the job entail? What does the person in that position really do? What are the desired qualities of a person in that position? (My agency publishes a list of desired qualities with the job announcement).

What are the positive and negative aspects to the job? Don’t think for a minute that a position in the air unit is all fun and games, and doesn't have frustrations and challenges like any other job. It can also be very boring and monotonous at times. I know you don’t think so, but it can.

Over a period of time you should endeavor to talk to as many people in your department’s aviation unit, as possible. You should at some point interview the supervisors of the unit, and ask them exactly what they are looking for in a candidate.

Ask what you can do to improve your chances of being selected. Then do what they suggest! In doing this you are obviously going to visit your department’s aviation division on more than one occasion. But hold on, huge note of caution ahead!

Use Time to Your Advantage

But before we get to that note of caution, let’s talk about “time” and “timing”. Most if not all of these strategies are going to work best when spread out over a period of years vs. a few weeks, (that being the few weeks between the job announcement and the interview). The better candidate is going to be quietly working his or her plan over a period of time. He or she is not going to suddenly decide after 10 or 15 years on the department that he wants to be in the air unit and race around trying to become the best candidate in 3-4 weeks. Don’t misunderstand, certainly you can develop an interest in the aviation unit after 15 years on your agency and be an excellent candidate, but that deputy or officer that has been preparing for the past 5 or 10 years is probably going to have some distinct advantages over you.

I recall our lieutenant discussing a candidate for a position in our unit, a couple of years back. Upon review of this deputy’s yearly evaluations, he noted that his very first evaluation on the department stated that the deputy’s career goal was to obtain a position in the aviation unit. That deputy is now a helicopter pilot in our unit.

Here is that note of caution I mentioned.

Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome Down At The Air Support Unit

I have mentioned repeatedly that good judgment is a must have quality of anyone assigned to a law enforcement aviation unit. Your judgment, good or bad, will start to shine through from your very first contact with anyone in your department’s air unit. Repeated phone calls, emails, just showing up, or hanging out at the air unit, (particularly uninvited) is not a sign of good judgment! A misguided campaign of self-promotion could be a sure ticket to anyplace except a position in the police aviation unit. Let common courtesy, common sense, and a strong sense for what is reasonable be your guide.

There is an old saying that “it is better to stay quiet and let people think you are stupid than to open your mouth and confirm it”. Become a nuisance and you will have accomplished nothing more than convincing the very people you wish to impress, that you in fact are a poor decision maker with poor judgment. Sorry for the brutal honesty but sugar coating this will not benefit you one iota. Remember too, this is true with any specialized unit not just the aviation or helicopter unit.

With that said, you do need to get to know the supervisors and officers already assigned to your aviation unit. Do go and introduce yourself, be a little bold, let them know who you are and that you want to be assigned there. Just do it within reason!

Go Get Some Skills That Will Carry Over To the Air Unit

A tactical flight officer in a helicopter is a patrol officer, make no mistake about. The best TFO is going to be the best patrol officer on the ground. One of the most common calls for a helicopter crew, is to assist in a search for a suspect who is trying to evade capture and arrest. Understanding search techniques, perimeter containment, etc., are important skills to develop. A great way to hone your patrol search techniques even further while still in patrol, is to become a K9 officer.

The role of the K9 officer and the TFO are closely related on searches. Officer Jack H. Schonely is a LAPD pilot who is nationally recognized for his expertise in suspect searches. Jack spent many years as a LAPD K9 officer before being assigned to the air unit, and is the author of the book Apprehending Fleeing Suspects (available from Amazon.com). This is a great illustration of the close connection between the K9 officer and the TFO.

As stated above, on my agency you are assigned points for your experience, using a scoring system called a matrix. For example, you not only get points for a certain number of years on the department, but for taking on extra duties and responsibilities, such as Field Training Officer, Canine Officer, SWAT team, etc. There is nothing wrong with aggressively going after your goals, gaining the necessary skills and experience as part of the process.

Find the Most Common Route to the Aviation Unit on Your Department

Almost a full 50% of the people currently assigned to our aviation unit were selected directly from the SWAT team. A couple of these individuals, who went on to be Sergeants in the unit, came over from the SWAT team 15-17 years ago. So this is nothing new. That also means that the other 50% were not selected from the SWAT team. So why is this?

Also Read- Learn How to Fly A Helicopter

There are likely a number of reasons. On our agency the SWAT team falls under the same command as the air unit. In other words the SWAT team Captain is also the Captain of the air unit. An officer or deputy on the SWAT team is very likely going to have all of the desired qualities that the air unit is looking for in a new TFO. You don’t get onto the SWAT team by being mediocre.

On your department, where are the majority of officers assigned, when they are selected as a new TFO? Do most come from patrol, K9, or detectives? Can you identify a reason why most new TFO’s come from this particular assignment? This may give you additional insight as to where to focus your efforts in building the necessary skills to become the best candidate.

Though we have talked about the SWAT team, and K9 officers quite a bit here, I was never assigned to either unit before being assigned to our aviation unit. I did however have about 12 years of straight patrol experience, with another 4 years of field experience divided between the COPPS unit and Special Purpose Patrol Deputy on an Indian Reservation.

Final Thoughts on Landing That Position in the Air Unit

I am going to finish this article with one final tip. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that you can go out and get some aviation experience, and that will somehow make up for weaknesses in the areas mentioned in this article. In most cases this is a flawed approach, and a costly one. I understand the desire to try to make yourself stand out from the crowd, (yes you want to try to stand out as much as possible). But I will simply refer you back to earlier parts of this article. 


Ask supervisors in you air unit what you can do to improve your chances, then do it. If they tell you to go and get a certain helicopter or fixed wing rating, then go for it. I am just saying that you may be sadly disappointed if you go out and do this on your own, and find out that it did not help you at all. It doesn't cost anything to develop a reputation as a hard worker, and someone who is well liked with a great attitude. One is much more valuable than then other, and it is free. 

For more on helicopter pilot jobs vs airline pilot jobs check out my page How to Become A Pilot.