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 III  Sworn Path to Becoming a Police Helicopter Pilot


Aviation Fitness & Police Pilot Career Planning

Part III is going to be my catch all article for now. Any other hints, tips, or thoughts I can come up with on this subject will be added to this article.

So far in this article we discuss fitness, and researching police agencies who have a history of operating police helicopters.

Fitness: Do You Need to Be In Shape for The Air Unit

One subject that I have not addressed yet in the series of articles is physical fitness. As law enforcement officers we know that ideally we should strive to maintain that level of fitness we had upon graduating the academy, right? Sure some of us go on to become marathon runners and compete in triathlons, (I'm not one of them) but for many of us the years and pounds can add up.

This point is pretty straight forward. If you want to become a member of your department's aviation unit, you need to get slimmed down, and in excellent shape for a number of reasons.

First let's look at pure perception. Let's say you have two candidates interviewing for an opening in the air unit. Let’s say both have the same level of experience, both do excellent on the interview, both are well liked and come with excellent references, but one is physically fit, while the other one is 50 lbs overweight. Do you want to guess which one gets the position?

Whether it is fair or not, the more fit candidate is very likely going to be perceived as the better, more prepared, and more qualified candidate (again all other things being equal.) One could probably argue that you are not serious about securing a position in the air unit, if you have not bothered to get yourself into shape physically.

Other specialized unit's such as the SWAT team have no qualms telling a person they need to be in excellent physical condition before applying.

The bottom line is that if I am trying to make a positive impression on the interview board, the Air Unit Commander, etc., I don't want to show up 40 or 50 lbs overweight. I want to show that I have a certain amount of self-discipline, motivation, and a desire to be in at least good physical condition.

Remember also, many agencies are flying helicopters that are already loaded down with a significant amount of extra equipment and weight. Even most small turbine powered helicopters do not have unlimited power. Depending on the specific aircraft, temperature, altitude, etc., 50 lbs could be the deciding factor on whether or not you have enough power to complete the mission.

Also Read Learn How to Fly A Helicopter 

In our unit, you could at any time find yourself on a hiking trail, in 110 degree weather, carrying a litter with an overweight, overheated, hiker who has succumbed to the weather. It's best to not become a victim yourself in these situations.

The positive side of all this is that now time is on your side. We know that for many of you securing a position in the air unit is going to be a long term goal. We already know that for most agencies you are going to need at least 5, if not 10 years to be competitive, so there is no excuse to not be in excellent physical shape when your interview comes around!

Researching Police Aviation Units and Choosing an Agency with a Solid Air Unit

Suppose you are a young person still in high school or perhaps college and it is your dream to become a police helicopter pilot. You have decided you are going to take the sworn path to becoming a police pilot so you need to decide on which police agency you are going to join, to begin your trek to the air unit. Here is my best advice to you.

First begin by looking around your own state. Look at the two or three largest cities in the state, then look at the largest counties. Do these City Police Departments and County Sheriff Departments have an existing air unit? If so, let’s do some research.

How large is this particular air support unit? How many helicopters or aircraft do they operate? When was the air unit first formed? All of these questions and answers are going to give you a good idea of how committed the agency and the citizens it serves are to the air support unit.

The goal here is to find a medium size to large agency that has a long history of operating a number of helicopters or aircraft. Let’s look at some examples.

Let’s assume you look at a nearby medium size city, with a medium size police force. They operate two helicopters, one of which is a military surplus, and their unit was formed 10 years ago. Furthermore, due to the poor economy over the last 4-5 years you find news articles where their flight time has been cut back significantly. Even if this is your home town, I would not for a moment consider joining this agency, if your goal is to fly police helicopters long term.

Now compare the above fictitious air unit with my own agency and air unit, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.

San Diego Sheriff’s Air Support Unit operates 5 patrol helicopters and two medium lift firefighting helicopters. The unit was first formed around 1972 and has been operating continuously ever since, except for a few months in the late 1980s when the Sheriff was fighting with the board of supervisors of his budget. During the recent economic turndown our unit has continued to operate. The two Bell 205 (Huey) helicopters were purchased by the county around 2005 and have been in continuous use ever since. So our particular unit and the missions we fly have actually grown in recent years.

Who Has The Third Largest Police Air Support Unit in The Nation?

Are you from the mid-west? Let’s look at Houston Police Department’s Air Support Unit. Houston is the largest city in Texas and their air support unit reflects that. They now have the third largest municipal police aviation fleet in the country. The only two air support units larger than Houston PD is LAPD Air Support and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Air Support. At last count Houston Police operated a total of 16 helicopters and one fixed wing aircraft. In 2008 they entered an agreement with MD Helicopters to purchase 8 new MD500E helicopters. They also had plans in 08 to double the number of personnel in the air unit from 44 to 88.

If I was a young person in the Mid-West and I wanted a career flying police helicopters, I think after college I would head on down to Houston and apply for a police officer.

The key here is to do a little research and choose an agency that has a long and solid history of operating helicopters. You want to make sure that the air unit is still going to be there in five or ten years when you start interviewing or when you become competitive for a position in the unit.

A Good Place To Start Your Police Aviation Research

Let's say you are ready to do a little research on which police, sheriff, state or federal agencies have their own aviation unit. Is there a master list somewhere? There is not really a public list that I know of, but there is something that comes close.

The Airborne Law Enforcement Association has a public section on their website which includes an extensive photo gallery, by agency, listed in alphabetical order. Many police aviation units still do not have a dedicated website, but most have submitted photos to ALEA of their aircraft. It is one of the largest photo galleries of police helicopters on the internet.

There is nothing wrong with using this list as a research tool to discover which agencies have their own Air Support Unit.  It is not all inclusive however; I do know there are some agencies with an air unit who do not have photos posted there. 


I have begun listing Police and Law Enforcement Air Units here on this site, but unfortunately it is a long term project. It will likely be another year or two before I have time to complete the list.

Good luck with your research.

For more in depth information on becoming a pilot and a discussion of airline pilot jobs vs helicopter pilot jobs visit my How to Become a Pilot page.